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Escalating Violence in Afghanistan Raises Fears of Refugee Influx to Pakistan

[Islamabad] Intensified violence as foreign troops exit Afghanistan is displacing hundreds of thousands of civilians, worsening an ever-evolving humanitarian crisis.

Afghanistan’s deadliest battle has raised fears in Pakistan that thousands of families fleeing the turmoil will try to enter the neighboring country. Pakistan already hosts around 2.8 million registered and unregistered Afghan refugees, and efforts have been made to get some to return to their home country.

Afghanistan is the second-largest source of refugees in the world after Syria, and Pakistan hosts the second-largest number of registered refugees − approximately 1.5 million − after Turkey.

Afghanistan and Pakistan share a vast border stretching 1,660 miles along the southern and eastern edges of Afghanistan.

As many as half a million Afghans could flee the country in the weeks leading up to the August 31 deadline for US troop withdrawal, Pakistani officials warn.

As the US-led foreign troops leave, violence has increased across several provinces including in Kandahar, where Taliban fighters are carrying out widespread attacks.

“The fighting has displaced 22,000 families in the past month in Kandahar,” Dost Mohammad Daryab, head of the provincial refugee department, told The Media Line. “They have all moved from the volatile districts of the city to the safer areas.”

Kandahar city, the capital of the province of the same name, is the second-largest city in Afghanistan after Kabul. It has 650,000 inhabitants and was a stronghold of the Taliban when they ruled Afghanistan.

Last week, the Taliban claimed to gain control of Spin Boldak, a strategic border crossing to Pakistan located in Kandahar Province.

Afghan security forces continue to battle the Taliban for the control of the Spin Boldak border area, a crossing that provides direct access to Pakistan’s restive Balochistan Province.

Pakistan border management closed the Chaman-Spin Boldak crossing during the recent fierce battle between the Taliban and Afghan security forces.

However, Pakistan reopened the crossing on Monday, which is under Taliban control on the other side.

Earlier, Pakistani National Security Adviser Moeed Yusuf said, “Pakistan is not in a position to let in more refugees from Afghanistan.”

Yusuf, in his interview with the Voice of America, said his “country is willing but is not in a position to accept more asylum seekers from Afghanistan.”

He recommended that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) set up camps for refugees on the Afghan side of the border.

“There are fears that members of the banned terror outfits like the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan [aka the Pakistani Taliban] might enter Pakistan from Afghanistan in the guise of refugees and create unrest in the country,” Yusuf said.

Muhammad Iqbal Khan, a member of the National Assembly from the Tribal Areas and the parliamentary secretary for the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions, told The Media Line that “Pakistan is already going through a difficult situation. There are still about 2 million Afghans in Pakistan.”

“Pakistan has been big-heartedly hosting Afghan refugees. Pakistan has shown great flexibility in handling the Afghan refugee issue and has allowed them a great deal of freedom while living inside Pakistan,” Khan said.

“Pakistan may face a renewed inflow of refugees if Afghanistan is plunged further into civil war, but we have a concern that terrorists may enter under the pretext of seeking refuge, so keeping in mind the strategic situation, we will do what is best for Pakistan,” he added.

“If the state decides to host additional Afghan refugees, we will utilize all our resources to help them as we did in the past and we are doing now,” Khan said.

The UNHCR has been active in Pakistan since the first Afghan refugees arrived more than 40 years ago after the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Qaisar Khan Afridi, a UNHCR spokesperson in Pakistan, told The Media Line the agency “is concerned about the current violence in Afghanistan.

“UNHCR is constantly in consultation with the government of Pakistan and will formulate its policy according to its [UNHCR] strategy,” he added.

“Once again, Afghanistan is on the brink of a major humanitarian and displacement crisis,” Afridi warned. “Increasing violence and insecurity have prompted the displacement of some 270,000 people within Afghanistan this year, making the total reach 3.5 million IDPs [internally displaced persons] in Afghanistan.”

“While no large-scale international displacement from Afghanistan has been observed yet, any major influx would clearly require the international community to step up immediate and sustained support to both Afghanistan and its neighbors, in a spirit of responsibility and burden-sharing,” Afridi said.

“We are observing the situation in the region closely, and UNHCR is ready to support the government of Pakistan in case of an influx of Afghan refugees,” he said.

“UNHCR calls upon the government of Pakistan to remain a torchbearer of refugee protection if the situation in Afghanistan escalates to the point of promoting massive refugee outflows,” Afridi said.

Brig. Gen. (ret.) Haris Nawaz is a war veteran and a Karachi-based leading defense and security analyst.

“The fast deteriorating situation in Afghanistan is a cause of great concern for all its neighbors in general and Pakistan in particular, which is already hosting at least 3 million Afghan refugees,” Nawaz told The Media Line.

“We in Pakistan feel that the US was unfair to hastily withdraw from Afghanistan without finding a political solution that at a minimum provides a broad-based, ethnically balanced interim government,” he added.

“The US is almost gone, leaving behind unmotivated, unprofessional [Afghan government] troops to the mercy of the Taliban who day by day are gaining control over more than half of Afghan districts. Would they [the Americans] listen to any country, including Pakistan, asking them to hold on and go for a political solution? The answer is a big no!” Nawaz said.

“If the United States had resolved all issues before withdrawing from Afghanistan, the situation would not be as it is today,” he said.

“Pakistan has already taken some preventive measures to deal with the worst scenario, like sealing the Afghan border points and allocating areas to keep Afghan refugees, while continuing to try to persuade both sides to make a last-ditch effort to reach a political solution,” Nawaz said.

Urooj Babar is an English literature graduate and a social worker. She lives in Pir Piai town in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, formerly known as the North-West Frontier Province.

Jalozai, once Asia’s largest refugee camp, was located in the suburbs of Pir Piai, where at least 80,000 refugees lived for at least two decades. It was established in the 1980s after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and closed in 2008.

Jalozai camp had a profound effect on the surroundings.

“Over the past 40 years, millions of Afghan refugees, residing in Pakistan into the third generation, have badly affected Pakistan’s economy and education system,” Babar told The Media Line.

“A majority of refugees were living below the poverty line so they did not educate their children. The lack of education not only exacerbated poverty and unemployment but also led to a huge increase in the country’s birth rate, which ultimately resulted in social and economic chaos,” she noted.

“There is a dire need to invest in refugees’ education or risk paying the price with a generation of children condemned to grow up unable to live independently, find work and be full contributors to their people,” Babar said.