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Pakistan Pressures Afghan Refugees To Go Home


It has been a month since more than 130 children were murdered in an attack on a school in Pakistan. The government has responded with draconian measures; this includes victimizing the large number of Afghans living in Pakistan.

But as NPR's Philip Reeves reports, the massacre was carried out by members of the Pakistani Taliban.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Ihsan Ullah's family fled Afghanistan when the Soviets invaded 35 years ago. His father died fighting the Russians. Ihsan spent his entire life in Pakistan. He lives here in a cluster of mud huts just outside Pakistan's capital Islamabad where he works in a vegetable market. Children and goats wander around amid trash and open drains choked with sewage. Though born in Pakistan, Ihsan says the authorities still consider him an Afghan.

IHSAN ULLAH: (Through interpreter) I can't get Pakistani documents. They wouldn't give them to me.

REEVES: Every recent war in Afghanistan has sent people pouring into neighboring Pakistan. Many have gone back, but about 1.5 million registered refugees remain plus an unknown but very large number of undocumented migrants. The massacre at an army-run school in the city of Peshawar is causing lasting outage.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in foreign language).

REEVES: Again and again, TV channels play a song performed by kids lambasting the Pakistani Taliban for targeting children. The government's drafted a national action plan to crack down on extremism including introducing military courts for terrorism cases. It's also stepping up pressure on Afghans to go home.

The largest number of Afghans in Pakistan lives in the Northwest in the province of Khyber Paktunkhwa where the school massacre happened. The provincial government there recently held a cabinet meeting. Spokesman Mushtaq Ghani says the cabinet discussed Afghan refugees who were in Pakistan legally and also illegal Afghan migrants.

MUSHTAQ GHANI: We decided that the illegals should be removed immediately to be dispatched to their country. And those who are legal should be restricted to their camps.

REEVES: What he's talking about is a plan to deport or confine to refugee camps many hundreds of thousands of people. Ghani says the provincial authorities want to do this because they believe Afghans in Pakistan harbor Islamist militants. Most Afghans here are Pashtuns, like the Taliban. The plan has been greeted with considerable alarm.

MAYA AMERATUNGA: We think it's impossible to implement and that it will have counterproductive impacts.

REEVES: Maya Ameratunga is from the U.N. refugee agency the UNHCR. The Peshawar school massacre was an act of mass murder that's touched Pakistanis to the course, she says. But she also cautions against a xenophobic backlash. Remember, she says, Afghan refugees fled their home country because they were victims of war and persecution.

AMERATUNGA: So let's not victimize them anymore by blaming them collectively for something that there's no evidence that they had any connection with.

REEVES: Whether the provincial authorities plan to intern Afghan refugees will turn into reality isn't clear. Pakistan's federal government has not agreed to it. Sohail Qadeer Siddiqui, a top official in the ministry responsible for Afghan refugees ,thinks it's a bad idea.

SOHAIL QADEER SIDDIQUI: That is not a realistic plan at all because they are living in the urban areas. They have their business, transport, properties, jobs, everything.

REEVES: Hosting so many refugees for so long has placed a heavy burden on Pakistan. And in the aftermath of the Peshawar attack, the federal government is now pushing forward with an earlier plan to repatriate all Afghan refugees by the end of this year.

Meanwhile, U.N. staff say Afghan refugees are now increasingly vulnerable. There have been reports of Afghans being kicked out of jobs and homes and of Pakistani officials going into Afghan neighborhoods with bullhorns telling people they must soon move to camps. For Ihsan Ullah and his mud village on the edge of Islamabad, these are worrying times.

ULLAH: (Speaking Pashtu).

REEVES: Ishan says being confined to a camp would be a real injustice. As for going to Afghanistan...

ULLAH: (Speaking Pashtu).

REEVES: "We won't go," he says. "Afghanistan is too unstable. We're staying here." Philip Reeves, NPR's News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.
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