KARACHI/KABUL: Prime Minister Imran Khan’s announcement offering citizenship to Pakistan-born Afghan and Bengali refugees has brought deep gratitude from the marginalized communities but scathing remarks from the nationalist parties that fear a significant demographic change.
Addressing a fundraiser for hydropower dams at the Sindh Governor House in Karachi, PM Khan said: “An underclass is increasing which is responsible for the hike in street crimes.
“More than 0.25 million Bengalis and a large number of Afghans are living here, but since they have been denied national identity cards of Pakistan, despite having been born here, they are unable to find jobs or work on meager wages,” Khan explained, adding that this is giving rise to the “underclass” which he also called the “deprived class.”
“In Europe the illegal refugees were granted citizenship through asylum. And such facilities should be extended by Pakistan to Afghan refugees, which share culture, language and customs with their Pakistani brothers,” said Afghan veteran journalist Sami Yousufzai.
However, materialization of any such plan depends on the backing of the Pakistan’s security establishment, which had been avoiding issuance of security clearances to those who had been applying for citizenship under the country’s law, said Yousufzai.
Hajji Abdullah, head of the Afghan Refugees in Karachi, said a jirga was under way to pay tribute to Prime Minister Imran Khan.
“We have gathered to appreciate the landmark announcement by Imran Khan, the only prime minister who spoke for the Afghans, who takes care of Afghans,” Abdullah told Arab News.
Third-generation Afghans are living in Pakistan but no one thought about it. We are facing extreme hardship here, he said. “Whereas our brothers in Europe have got citizenship a long time ago we are still living as refugees in Sindh, Balochistan and other parts of the country.”
“Imran Khan’s statement comes a day after the foreign minister’s visit to Afghanistan was termed as highly successful,” said Iftikhar Firdous, a Peshawar-based journalist. “In the larger context it’s an overt gesture to put Pak-Afghan relations back on track. But it also shows Khan’s effort to reach out to the marginalized communities and portray him as the PM of all,” he said.
Applause from Afghanistan
Afghan nationals have also hailed the Pakistan prime minister’s overture, largely saying that the move will make life easier for nearly two million Afghans who have lived or have been born in Pakistan after fleeing their country’s various rounds of war nearly 40 years ago.
“It actually is a very positive step. Those Afghans who want to live in Pakistan and become a Pakistani national will welcome it. Afghans acquire nationality of Europe and America ... why not Pakistan?” said Shah Mahmoud, a taxi driver in Kabul.
Others said Pakistan will benefit more from the offer as it will “reduce the anti-Pakistan sentiment among Afghans.”
However, Daud Junbish, a senior journalist working with the BBC, warned in a tweet about the possible impact of the offer.
“The offer of Pakistani nationality to Afghans is a very serious matter and can have security, political and moral consequences,” he said.
Offer cherished by Bengalis
“Over 2.5 million Bengalis live in more than 115 Bengali majority neighborhoods of Karachi,” said Bachoo Dewan, chairman of the Pak Muslim Alliance, a Bengali political group, adding that a large number also live in Hyderabad, Islamabad, Lahore, Peshawar and other cities of Pakistan.
“We have rendered great sacrifices during 1965 and 1971 for this country but our community still faces discrimination and a large part is being denied Pakistani nationality,” he said, adding: “We are thankful to PM Imran Khan for speaking for our marginalized community.”
Dewan said most Bengalis are denied jobs owing to lack of computerized national identity cards and those who get one work on meager wages which are insufficient to run a household.
Not well received by nationalists
As Afghans, Bengalis and independent analysts are hailing the landmark offer, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) as well as both Sindhi and Baloch nationalist parties, said the statement is contemptible. The grant of citizenship to millions of Afghanis and Bengalis, they say, will change the demography, turning the sons of the soil into a minority.
PPP leader and provincial minister Saeed Ghani said his party was “strongly opposed to grant citizenship to illegal immigrants. They should be registered and given work permits as well but giving them citizenship will create problems.”
The Sindhi nationalist party, Sindh United Party argued: “Instead of giving them citizenship, the government should take steps for the respectful repatriation.”
Agha Hasan Baloch, spokesman of Balochistan National Party-Mengal, which has signed a six-point agenda – including the repatriation of Afghan refugees as one of the points – with Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) party, said the decision will be protested.
“They (the Afghan refugees) are dangerous and have created several social problems besides changing demography of the province. It’s not justified to offer them citizenship,” Baloch told Arab News.
“We will not compromise. We appeal to Prime Minister Imran Khan to revise his decision,” he said.
However, Azhar Laghari, PTI’s head of Public Relations, told Arab News that the security and intelligence agencies had briefed the prime minister that Afghans and Bengalis are one of the elements of street crime. “He was informed that second and third generations of them live in Karachi and the constitution allows them to get citizenship, so the PM announced that they will be given nationality.”
“Not those who have migrated but their kids who have been born here should be given citizenship, and for this the reservation of nationalist parties will be removed and a policy devised by consulting all stakeholders,” he said.
“The constitution will be implemented and it provides those born in Pakistan with the right to citizenship,” Leghari said.