Pakistani premier’s citizenship offer to Afghans meets ire at home but gratitude in Afghanistan

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Afghan refugee children play with tires in Islamabad, Pakistan, on October 6, 2017. Prime Minister Imran Khan has offered citizenship to Pakistan-born Afghan and Bengali refugees. (REUTERS/File Photo)
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A Bengali immigrant living in Pakistan makes tea at his stall in Karachi on September 17, 2018. (AFP / ASIF HASSAN)
Updated 18 September 2018

Pakistani premier’s citizenship offer to Afghans meets ire at home but gratitude in Afghanistan

  • Nearly a quarter of a million Bengalis and Afghans in Karachi alone cannot get decent jobs owing to lack of national identity cards
  • The constitution of Pakistan allows citizenship to third generations of Bengali and Afghan refugees living in Pakistan, experts briefed the prime minister

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.



Berlin celebrates postwar visitor program for expelled Jews

Updated 15 September 2019

Berlin celebrates postwar visitor program for expelled Jews

  • The program has brought people like Melmed on one-week trips to Berlin to reacquaint themselves with the city
  • The “invitation program for former refugees” has brought back primarily Jewish emigrants who fled the Nazis

BERLIN: Berlin was the last place Helga Melmed had expected to see again. She was 14 when the Nazis forced her and her family onto a train from their home in the German capital to the Jewish ghetto in Lodz, Poland, in 1941.

That started a gruesome odyssey that later saw her imprisoned at Auschwitz and Neuengamme outside Hamburg before she was finally freed by British soldiers in 1945 from Bergen-Belsen in northern Germany, a 46-pound walking skeleton.

For years, she never considered returning to Germany until she was invited on a trip by the city of her birth, in a reconciliation program meant to help mend ties with former Berliners who had been forced out by the Nazis.

Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, the program has successfully brought people like Melmed on one-week trips to Berlin to reacquaint themselves with the city.

Some 35,000 people have accepted the invitation since it was first issued in 1969, and while the numbers are dwindling a few new participants still come every year.

“I thought I’d never come back,” Melmed, 91, who emigrated to the US via Sweden after the war, told The Associated Press in an interview.

The “invitation program for former refugees” has brought back primarily Jewish emigrants who fled the Nazis, or those like Melmed who survived their machinery of genocide.

On Wednesday, she and other former program participants were invited to Berlin City Hall to celebrate the half-century anniversary.

At a ceremony mayor Michael Mueller thanked them for coming back — despite all they suffered at the hands of the Germans.
“Many people followed our invitation, people who had lost everything they loved,” he said. “I want to express my strong gratitude to you for putting your trust in us.”

Despite skepticism at the time that anyone persecuted by the Nazis would want to return, in 1970 — one year after the program’s launch — there was already a waiting list of 10,000 former Berliners who wanted to come back for a visit.

More than 100 other German cities and towns have instituted similar programs but no municipality has brought back as many former residents as the capital.

Berlin, of course, also had the biggest Jewish community before the Holocaust. In 1933, the year the Nazis came to power, around 160,500 Jews lived in Berlin. By the end of World War II in 1945 their numbers had diminished to about 7,000 — through emigration and extermination.

All in all, some six million European Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Melmed’s father was shot dead in the Lodz ghetto — where the Nazis concentrated Jews and forced them to work in factories — a few months after their arrival and her mother died of exhaustion a few months later, shortly after Melmed’s 15th birthday.

Melmed, who lives in Venice, Florida, received her invitation under the reconciliation program 42 years ago. “One day, out of the blue, I found a letter in the mailbox inviting me to come back for a visit,” the retired nurse said at the hotel where she was staying with two of her four children and a grandson.

“So, in 1977, my husband and I traveled to Berlin.” They were part of an organized group tour of dozens of other former Berliners who had been persecuted by the Nazis.

“I don’t know if the trip was a dream or a nightmare,” Melmed said. One afternoon, she went for a coffee at Berlin’s famous Kempinski Hotel — today called the Bristol Hotel — just like she used to do as a little girl with her mother and dad, a banking executive.
“It was heart-breaking,” Melmed said.

Her life story is chronicled in the exhibition “Charter Flight into the Past” about the program, which opened Thursday at Berlin’s City Hall and will run through Oct. 9.

Johannes Tuchel, the director of the German Resistance Memorial Center, which curated the exhibition, said that many returnees had conflicting emotions.

They didn’t trust the Germans — especially in the early years of the program, when many people they saw in the streets still belonged to the Nazi generation. Often, memories of loss and pain were stirred up by the visit, but at the same time many were also able to reconnect with a city that harbored many happy childhood mementos for them.

For Melmed, closure came only at an old age. In 2018, when she turned 90, she decided to return once again to Berlin. It was then that she met the current tenants of her old family home in the Wilmersdorf neighborhood of Berlin.

They invited her back into the apartment and organized a plaque-laying ceremony last week to commemorate her parents on this year’s visit.

Last week, city officials presented her with her original birth certificate and her parents’ marriage certificate. “Now it’s all closure for me,” Melmed said with a peaceful smile as she touched her golden necklace with a Star of David pendant. “It doesn’t hurt anymore.”