In ‘mini Kabul’, Afghan refugees mark 40 years in Pakistan

It is a grim milestone for entire generations of families who fled war to create a life in Pakistan, but still face an uncertain future and no clear path to citizenship. (File/AFP)
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Updated 15 February 2020

In ‘mini Kabul’, Afghan refugees mark 40 years in Pakistan

  • Guterres will visit Islamabad for a conference
  • Pakistan is one of the largest refugee-hosting nations in the world

PESHAWAR: Afghan boys sell fresh fruit on carts, signs are written in Dari or Pashto, and restaurants in the bustling bazaar sell Afghan dishes such as Kabuli pulao.
But this “mini Kabul” is in Pakistan, which this week marks 40 years of hosting Afghan refugees.
It is a grim milestone for entire generations of families who fled war to create a life in Pakistan, but still face an uncertain future and no clear path to citizenship.
“We spent an entire life here,” says Niaz Mohammed, a 50-year-old laborer from Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province who fled to Pakistan in the 1980s.
“We had weddings and marriages here, our kids were born here ... We have jobs and work here, while there’s no peace in Afghanistan. That’s why we are happy here.”
On Sunday UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres will arrive in Islamabad for a conference the United Nations says will “send a global reminder about the fate of millions of Afghans living as refugees.”
“The main challenge right now is to continue to provide support to Pakistan in hosting them ... and also give access to skills and education for the young Afghan population here,” Indrika Ratwatte, Asia director of the UN refugee agency UNHCR, told AFP on Friday.
Pakistan is one of the largest refugee-hosting nations in the world, home to an estimated 2.4 million registered and undocumented people who have fled Afghanistan, some as far back as the Soviet invasion of 1979.
Many live in camps, while others have built lives for themselves in Pakistan’s cities, paying rent and contributing to the economy.
“Mini Kabul,” the bustling Refugee Market in the northwestern city of Peshawar is home to some 5,000 shops — all run by Afghan refugees.
But their status has always been temporary, with deadlines set for them to leave Pakistan repeatedly pushed back as the conflict in Afghanistan worsens.
Many Pakistanis view them with suspicion, accusing them of spurring militancy and criminality, and calling for them to be sent home.
Even those who have spent decades in the country cannot own property or obtain identity cards, and were only recently allowed to open bank accounts.
Shortly after he came to power, Prime Minister Imran Khan vowed to grant them citizenship — but the controversial promise sparked outrage, and has not been spoken of since.
Nevertheless, many of the refugees who spoke to AFP in Peshawar recently said they love their adopted home.
Javed Khan, 28, was born in Pakistan, has married a Pakistani woman and has three sons of his own.
“I will leave only if Pakistan forces me,” he told AFP.
The situation could yet change: Afghanistan may be about to take the first step on the long road to peace.
Late Thursday the US said it has secured a seven-day reduction in violence in the country that it hopes will allow it to strike a deal with the Taliban, as President Donald Trump said a peace accord was “very close.”
Such a deal would allow Washington to begin withdrawing troops, in return for security guarantees from the Taliban and a promise to begin peace talks with the Afghan government.
However refugees were skeptical about what it would mean for them.
Mohammed Feroz, who came to Pakistan just over 40 years ago from Kabul, now runs a cloth shop in “mini Kabul.”
Sitting in a chair at the front of his shop, he said he supported the withdrawal of US troops — but was leery of US and Taliban motivations.
“They are after their interest. No one cares about us, God is the only hope for us,” he said.
Even if peace comes, most refugees said that they would prefer to stay in Pakistan, where they can support their families.
In the Khurasan refugee camp outside Peshawar an estimated 5,000 refugees live in poverty.
Yaseen Ullah, 26, collects scrap and sells it to junkyards. His family — his mother, four brothers, and four sisters — share a two-room mud house with no plumbing.
They also came from Nangarhar province across the border — and, despite the harshness of life in the camp, are not eager to go back.
“I have no job, no work in Afghanistan. So what will I do there?” Ullah asked.
Mohammad, the laborer from Nangarhar, agreed.
“I have to feed my family, my kids,” the father of seven, all born in the camp, told AFP, speaking Pashto with a Pakistani accent.
“I am saying it from my heart and I am very clear on it, that I will prefer to stay here. I do not want to return.”

Related


India puts 30,000 in lockdown after preacher dies of virus

A volunteer sprays disinfectant on a policeman at a street during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown in Amritsar on Saturday. (AFP)
Updated 30 March 2020

India puts 30,000 in lockdown after preacher dies of virus

  • Sikh leader ignored order to self-isolate after 16-day trip to Europe, authorities say

NEW DELHI: More than 30,000 people have been quarantined in 20 villages in the northern Indian state of Punjab after coming into contact with a Sikh religious leader who died after being infected by the coronavirus, officials said on Sunday.

Baldev Singh, 70, returned to India on March 7 after attending religious events during a 16-day trip to Italy and Germany.
After his return, he was asked to go into self-isolation, but reportedly defied the orders and is believed to have died on March 18.
Vinay Bublani, deputy commissioner of Shaheed Bhagat Singh Nagar district, told Arab News on Sunday that there was no explanation for Singh’s refusal to self-isolate.“
What I understand is that he was asymptomatic and did not show any symptoms of infection,” Bublani said.
Some media reports suggest that Singh continued to attend religious functions despite developing symptoms associated with the coronavirus.
Between March 10-12, he attended the Halla Mohallaa, in Punjab’s Anantpur Saheb district, which draws tens of thousands of people, and also visited individual houses to recite religious texts and scriptures afterwards.
Health authorities in Punjab said that the state has almost 40 confirmed coronavirus cases, with 23 of the victims reportedly infected after coming in contact with Singh.
Elsewhere in India, authorities said the number of infections is nearing 1,000 with 25 deaths reported.
The government is concentrating on virus hotspots in the country, including Punjab, following the latest developments in the state.
After his death on March 18, 19 of Singh’s close relatives tested positive for the illness, with four others reportedly infected.
“We tested hundreds of people and, later on, decided to quarantine the entire area consisting of 20 villages and with a population of more than 30,000 people.
No one isallowed to come out of their village,” Bublani said.
However, he warned that self-quarantine is proving difficult to enforce. “People don’t take it seriously. They have been defiant. That’s why the lockdown has been imposed,” he added.

FASTFACTS

• Between March 10-12, Baldev Singh attended the Halla Mohallaa, which draws tens of thousands of people.

• Health authorities in Punjab said that the state has almost 40 confirmed coronavirus cases, with 23 of the victims reportedly infected after coming in contact with Singh.

Singh’s death and his unrestricted movement have alarmed the state government, which has asked police to take “strict legal action against those violating home quarantine orders.”
Political analyst Maneesh Chibber told Arab News that authorities face an uphill task.“
In Punjab, you have many socio-religious organizations and sects, and they are powerful. They have strong political connections and cannot be held accountable for their excesses,” he said.
The state government has made it mandatory for anyone arriving from overseas in the past month to report to health officials.
On Tuesday, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh said that “an estimated 97,000 people have arrived in Punjab since early January, while more than 30,000 have been asked to self-quarantine.”
The government also launched an app named Cova to trace residents who had returned to Punjab but not registered their entry.
Apart from providing information on the disease, the app prompts users to inform authorities about their return from an overseas trip.“
We need to do our best to track all the suspected cases so that we can contain the spread of the virus,” Bublani said.
A senior state health official, who requested anonymity since he was not authorized to speak to the media, told Arab News on Sunday that “thermal screening at airports is not enough to identify positive patients.”
The state health department is also trying to trace 144 people who returned from abroad but provided false addresses to airport authorities.