The Platform

An Afghan refugee with his children in Peshawar, Pakistan.

For decades, Pakistan has given refuge to countless Afghan refugees who first fled the Soviets and now the Taliban.

Since the late 1970s, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Pakistan has hosted one of the largest refugee populations anywhere in the world. Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan led to over 400,000 Afghans seeking refuge in Pakistan, and now because of the Taliban, hundreds of thousands of Afghans have continued the march eastward.

Pakistan has had to cope with frequent difficulties in accommodating such a sizable number of refugees, such as infrastructure problems, food scarcity, and security. Adding to the misery faced by many refugees were the devastating floods that affected much of Pakistan.

Since 2002, nearly 3.8 million Afghans have returned to their homeland, but a significant number continue to migrate back to Pakistan. Due to dwindling donor aid, domestic restrictions, a weak economy, refugee fatigue, and the rising threat of terrorism, Afghan refugees have grown to be a significant concern for Islamabad.

Many Afghans were born in Pakistan over the past three decades and have assimilated into the local culture. For Islamabad, it has been challenging to calculate the exact number of Afghans because of the numerous waves of refugees leaving Afghanistan and then returning home. Moreover, despite the absence of official arrival statistics, the number of refugees has significantly increased since the Taliban assumed power. Comparing the statistics of the last couple of years, as of 2014, Pakistan was home to about 1.6 million registered Afghan refugees, and by the end of 2015, 1.5 million Afghans were living in Pakistan.

The majority of those who entered Pakistan now live in cities and refugee camps and have not reached out to the UNHCR for assistance, thus remaining unregistered. These figures keep fluctuating, but in 2021 they crossed the threshold of 3.5 million, according to government estimates, and there were only 1.4 million officially registered refugees.

Even though Pakistan has approved some short-term transit visas, it has refused to meet the humanitarian needs of individuals who entered the country illegally. As a result, Pakistan has been susceptible to mass migration, militant activity, and drug and arms trafficking. Although the UNHCR has increased aid packages for registered refugee families choosing to return home from $200 to $400 per person, Pakistan has spent billions of dollars over the past three decades sheltering refugees because of their lack of intent to go back home for obvious reasons.

Considering the severity of flooding in 2022, a one-time monetary support program for the 1.3 million refugees was launched at the beginning of February by the UNHCR in partnership with Islamabad. The aid is being given to refugees who are not entitled to the same social programs as Pakistanis. Based on family size, registered refugees may receive up to $93, which for a refugee family will go a long way.

Additionally, Islamabad has protected nearly 850,000 Afghans from deportation and has allowed anyone who is eligible, access to free primary school enrolment and scholarships, the ability to open bank accounts, and a variety of employment options.

Over the years, Pakistan’s government has not only embraced the Afghans who have fled decades of war and poverty, but also give them the opportunity to attend school, launch businesses, and travel freely around the country.

Qura tul ain Hafeez is currently a Research Scholar at the School of Politics and International Relations, Islamabad. Qura's specialization includes International Relations, Strategic and Nuclear Studies, along with South Asian politics.