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.”

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UK business minister’s illness stirs virtual parliament debate

Updated 7 min 5 sec ago

UK business minister’s illness stirs virtual parliament debate

  • Many lawmakers complained after having to stand in a long queue in order to take a socially distant vote on Tuesday
  • Business Secretary Alok Sharma’s shaky appearance on Wednesday only added to their concern

LONDON: Britain’s business secretary was tested for the coronavirus Thursday and went into self-isolation after sweating through a speech in parliament that reinvigorated a debate on whether lawmakers were ending virtual sessions prematurely.
UK politicians have been fighting for days over Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to end remote video conference sessions that began when the virus was still spreading fast in April.
Johnson is trying to coax frightened Britons to start taking their children back to school and resume some semblance of the old way of life because the virus — after officially claiming more than 40,000 lives — is now slowly fading.
But his efforts to get lawmakers back into the House of Commons have run into problems.
Many complained bitterly after having to stand in a long queue that twisted through the halls of parliament in order to take a socially distant vote on Tuesday.
Business Secretary Alok Sharma’s shaky appearance on Wednesday only added to their concern.
The 52-year-old mopped his forehead with a handkerchief and rubbed his face several times while trying to finish a speech at the podium.
Several alarmed lawmakers later noted they had stood in the queue next to him during Tuesday’s vote.
Sharma’s spokeswoman said the minister was “feeling unwell” but did not specify if he had the virus.
“In line with guidance he has been tested for coronavirus and is returning home to self-isolate,” she said.
The House of Commons said a deep cleaning of the chamber has been performed as a precaution.
The main opposition Labour party’s business spokesman Toby Perkins said it was “ridiculous” for Sharma to show up to work sick.
“It was the height of irresponsibility for him to be in parliament sniffling, sweating and snorting from the despatch box,” he added.
Labour’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Lisa Nandy said “reckless doesn’t even begin to describe” the government’s decision to end virtual parliament hearings.
Lawmakers will vote later Thursday on whether to allow those in the high-risk category or aged 70 and over to vote by proxy.
But government minister Brandon Lewis denied that Sharma’s illness supported the opposition’s case for homeworking parliament sessions.
“It is important for parliamentarians to be able to properly scrutinize legislation,” Lewis told the BBC.
A poll by YouGov showed that just 12 percent of UK respondents thought lawmakers should have to vote in person during the health crisis.