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.”


Religious freedom: Italian govt, Muslim representatives sign memorandum

Police officers stand guard as a penitentiary van for inmates transport leaves the Sant'Anna prison in Modena, Emilia-Romagna, in one of Italy's quarantine red zones on March 9, 2020. (AFP)
Updated 06 June 2020

Religious freedom: Italian govt, Muslim representatives sign memorandum

  • New agreement allows for imams to offer spiritual assistance to Muslim inmates in Italian prisons

ROME: An agreement between the Italian government and the Union of Islamic Communities and Organizations in Italy (Italian: Unione delle Comunità e Organizzazioni Islamiche in Italia, UCOII) will allow imams to offer spiritual assistance to Muslim inmates detained in Italian prisons.

The memorandum of understanding follows an agreement signed last month between Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and representatives from Islamic communities in Italy on the reopening of mosques and prayer rooms as part of the country’s ‘Phase 2’ response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) crisis. The agreement is considered by Muslim representatives as a step toward official recognition of Islam as a religion in Italy.

According to the Italian Ministry of Justice, nearly 10,000 of the 60,000 inmates detained in Italian prisons are foreigners, most of whom are from Morocco, Tunisia and Romania. Latest official figures show that 7,200 inmates are observant Muslims, with 97 considered imams as they guide prayers within jails and 44 saying they converted to Islam during their detention.

In only few Italian jails, however, are Muslim inmates provided with spaces dedicated for prayer, which are not sufficient to meet the demand. By contrast, every prison has a Roman Catholic chapel where religious services are regularly held by priests, most of whom are paid by the Italian state.

The memorandum was signed by Department of Penitentiary Administration Chief Judge Bernardo Petralia and UCOII President Yassine Lafram.

“It implements the principle of religious freedom for all citizens established in the Constitution of the Italian Republic, which guarantees prisoners the right to profess their religious faith also while they are in detention. Considering the increasing multiethnicity of the Italian prison population, it is necessary to allow every religion to be professed in a proper way,” a statement from the Italian Ministry of Justice says.

According to the protocol, UCOII will provide prison administration with a list of people who “perform the functions of imam in Italy” and who are “interested in guiding prayers and worship within prisons nationwide.” The list will also specify at which mosque or prayer room each Imam normally performs his worship. Imams will have to indicate their preference for three provinces where they would be willing to lead prayers for inmates.

As no official agreement or law yet regulates in full the relationship between the Italian state and the Islamic communities in the country, the names of Imams on the list will have to be submitted to the Ministry of the Interior so that they may receive official authorization to perform their duties inside prisons.

Lafram said that he was “extremely satisfied” with this agreement with the Italian State.

“With this new protocol, it will be possible to have imams lead prayers in every prison in Italy. This is a sign of the excellent result obtained thus far for a pilot project we have carried out in the past five years in eight Italian prisons,” Lafram said.

Since 2015, some rooms have been made available to Muslim inmates for prayer, but the congregation had nobody to lead prayers or to preach, except during extraordinary times of the year like Ramadan. Due to the COVID-19 emergency, no one from outside was allowed access to prisons in order to prevent the spread infection. As a consequence, no spiritual assistance was available to Muslim inmates even within the few prisons that had a space for prayer and meditation.

“Spiritual assistance to prisoners is necessarily part of the process of reintegration into civil society, as stated in the Constitution of the Italian Republic,” Lafram told Italian news agency ANSA.

"With this agreement, we aim to promote social rehabilitation of the inmate, but also to…avoid any phenomenon of radicalization, which may be triggered by a condition of general resentment towards society," he added.

Lafram expressed his wish that greater attentiveness to the needs of Islamic communities across Italy would eventually lead to formal recognition of the religion in the country. He thanked Minister of Justice Alfonso Bonafede for “showing no prejudices toward the Islamic communities in Italy."

"This is an important step in the context of an ever-greater collaboration between our religious community and the Italian State in the general interest of the country’s welfare,” he said.