PESHAWAR, June 23 (IPS). “We came here in 1979 after the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. My children and grandchildren grew up here, and they do not want to return to this war-ravaged country. I sometimes go there to mourn the death of loved ones and relatives,” said Mohammed Jabbar, 67, a former resident of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.
Jabbar, who sells dried fruit at the Muhajir Bazaar (known as the “refugee market”) in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, one of Pakistan’s four provinces, said he was unable to convince his family members to visit their country because of the endless violence.
The latest in this series of events was the Taliban takeover in August 2021, further fueling Jabbar’s fears that even he would no longer be able to visit his homeland. At the same time, he acknowledges that Pakistan is now home to a family and calls the locals “friendly”.
The South Asian country is home to 3.3 million registered refugees and more than double the number of undocumented refugees who fled neighboring Afghanistan. Most of them run small businesses or do small jobs and send remittances to family members who stay abroad.
A vegetable vendor at the same market, Hayat Shah, says things are going so well that he and his family never think of returning. “We are very happy because here we live in peace and earn money for our survival. In Afghanistan, people are faced with an extremely difficult economic situation. My two sons and daughter study here at the local school,” Shah, 49, said.
“We arrived in Peshawar in early 1992 when unknown people blew up our house. My parents and two brothers died,” he adds.
The Shah and his family live in the Baghlan Camp in Peshawar, one of the 3,500 refugee families in the camp (although the UNHCR now refers to the camps as “refugee villages”). There are 54 refugee camps in Pakistan – 43 camps in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which are home to 32 per cent of the refugees. More than two-thirds of refugees live in urban areas where they are legally allowed to work, according to the UNHCR.
Most Afghans interviewed by IPS in the market said they feel Pakistan is now at home. Ninety percent of the merchants in the vast market are Afghan businessmen who own clothing, fish, meat, fruit and vegetable stores. “The refugee bazaar is crowded with Afghan women and men buying all sorts of goods,” said Ghafoor Shah, a fruit vendor. “This market is no different from any market in Afghanistan where you can see women wearing burkas shopping,” he adds.
Sultana, 51, says they often visit the bazaar to buy in bulk for the Islamic festival of Idul-Fitra, wedding ceremonies and other holidays. “We can find all the goods we need in accordance with Afghan traditions. We women can easily talk to Afghan shopkeepers and tailors in our own language, unlike Pakistanis who are difficult to talk to.”
UNHCR Pakistani Representative Qaisar Khan Afridi told IPS that the arrival of new refugees after the Taliban seized power in Kabul created serious problems.
“More than 250,000 Afghans have arrived here in the past 18 months – these are just registered refugees. The UN Refugee Agency is in talks with the host government to find a solution for these people who are not yet registered in Pakistan,” he says, adding, “Pakistan is not accepting new refugees,” he adds.
The UNHCR program for the voluntary repatriation of refugees to Afghanistan has almost completely stopped. Since January of this year, only 185 families have returned, each receiving $250 in aid. Since 2002, some 4.4 million refugees have been repatriated.
Muhammad Hashim, a reporter for Shamshad TV in Jalalabad, told IPS that the Taliban do not allow journalists to work freely and suspect all who worked in the previous government. “I came with my wife and two daughters to Pakistan in a roundabout way, and now we are trying to find asylum in the US or any other European country. Returning is out of the question,” he told IPS as he waited to register at the UNHCR office in Peshawar.
Hashim, 41, says he survived an assassination attempt the day before he left for Pakistan and left so quickly that his belongings were left behind in Afghanistan.
Women journalists stay at home, he adds. Fearing prosecution by the Taliban, he said, hundreds of people who worked in the police or in the offices of the former Afghan government also flocked to Pakistan. “Violence and the lack of jobs, education and health facilities haunt people.”
Schoolteacher Mushtari Begum, 39, among the new refugees. “I received a master’s degree in computer science from Kabul University and taught at a private girls’ school for eight years. Now women’s schools are closed, and teachers and students are sitting at home,” says Begum, a mother of two. “We are temporarily living with relatives in Peshawar and we have money,” she added.
On June 12, the Pakistani government approved a policy whereby Afghan asylum seekers will be issued transit visas so they can travel to any country of their choice. At the same time, the federal cabinet said that Pakistan has always welcomed refugees and will continue to receive them in difficult times.
Gul Rahim, who drives a taxi in the Nowshera district near Peshawar, says he came here in 2002 and was lucky enough to educate his two sons. “Pakistan has been a blessing to me. In Afghanistan, I would not have been able to raise my sons, who now teach at a school for refugees and help me financially.”
Fazal Ahmed, a local officer at the Afghan Commissariat in Peshawar, who oversees all refugee camps in the province, says they occasionally hold information sessions for refugees on issues such as violence and gender, health and education. “In more than 30 refugee camps, we also organize skills development programs, especially to enable women to earn a living.
“Sporting events are part of our program, which we organize in cooperation with UNHCR,” he says. He adds that Afghan students are also being accepted into Pakistani schools, universities and medical colleges.
However, not everything is so good. Many refugees complain of police harassment, but the authorities vehemently deny this accusation.
“We arrived here in February 2022 due to fear of reprisals from the Taliban. We do not have documents because Pakistan does not register new refugees, and the police often arrest us and release us only when we pay bribes,” says Usman Ali, who worked as a police constable in the former government of Kabul. Ali, 24, said his older brother, a former military man, was killed by the Taliban in December 2021.
“To save my life, I rushed to the Pakistani border in a passenger bus and ended up in Peshawar,” he adds.
Local government official Jehanzeb Khan told IPS that Afghans are treated like guests. “There are isolated cases of Afghans being mistreated by locals, but we take action when complaints come in,” he says.
On Nasir Bagh Road, where Ali sells cosmetics from a handcart, police officer Ahmad Nawaz told IPS they only arrest Afghans who are involved in crimes and are friendly to the innocent. “Afghans commit robberies and even murders and return to Afghanistan. We do not oppress the Afghans (who live here) because they are in trouble,” adds Nawaz.
© Inter Press Service (2022) — All rights reservedSource: Inter Press Service