Date: 19 January 2017

Pakistan’s Afghan refugees are pawns in a political conflict

Pakistan’s use of refugees for political leverage reflects a global trend. Caitlin Vito argues the tactic could prompt a humanitarian crisis – and will not bring Pakistan the security it craves
Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Credit: European Union/ECHO/Pierre Prakash

By Caitlin Vito, Coordinator, Office of the Director of Studies

After fleeing their homes in search of safety, 2.5 million people have found themselves unwilling weapons in the growing struggle between Pakistan and Afghanistan. They are Pakistan’s Afghan refugees, many of whom have lived in the country since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan 30 years ago. But an estimated 600,000 went back to Afghanistan in 2016. This rapid rate of return is set to continue; the Pakistani government has warned that Afghan refugees’ proof of registration cards – the documents securing their legal right to reside in the country – will be invalid after 31 March this year.

Pakistan argues that repatriating Afghan refugees is a key element of its strategy for fighting the Taliban, whose members, it believes, are harboured by the refugee community. However, the drive to ‘encourage’ repatriation – through increased arrests, harassment and detention – is widely seen as a retaliatory measure in response to Kabul’s closer relationship with India. As in other conflicts around the world, refugees have become a key strategic weapon, giving one side leverage over the other.

Move could bring more terror attacks, not fewer

Such tactics pose serious risks. Firstly, the repatriation of hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of refugees to conflict-ridden Afghanistan creates the perfect conditions for a humanitarian crisis, and undermines the region’s fragile security situation. Mass movement could exacerbate ethnic and religious tensions in the country, escalating violence until another wave of refugees is forced from their homes. This would destabilise Afghanistan and its neighbouring countries, notably Pakistan. Adding to this dangerous mix is a lack of infrastructure, services and opportunities – employment and otherwise – for returning Afghans. Despondent returnees would be potential recruits for the Taliban and anti-government elements, undermining Pakistan’s stated goal of combating terrorism.

At the same time, the tools of governments and the international community to mitigate these serious security consequences are diminished. The Afghan government is tied up by political infighting, a dire economy and insurgencies on multiple fronts. For its part, the international community is focused on migration challenges in the northern hemisphere and the humanitarian crises in Syria and Iraq.

This creates a worryingly precarious security situation, with ramifications well beyond Afghanistan’s borders. Paradoxically, Pakistan is jeopardising its own security and stability by leveraging Afghan refugees as a political tool. The mass movement of people to an already unstable Afghanistan will further undermine the fragile security environment in the region.

Refugees used as leverage in Turkey and Kenya

Pakistan is certainly not alone in using refugees as strategic assets, despite the tactic’s inherent security risks. The March 2016 EU–Turkey deal, designed to stem the flow of undocumented migrants and asylums seekers to the EU from Turkey via the Aegean Sea, highlights this trend. Turkey leveraged its ability to partially control the flow of people to Europe as a means of gaining important political concessions from the EU. These concessions included €2 billion ($US 2.4 bn) a year in aid, the resumption of EU membership talks and discussion of visa liberalisation for Turkish nationals. The Kenyan government has threatened to close the Dadaab refugee camp, home to 600,000 refugees, citing security concerns and an alleged fall-off in international funding. The threat is widely seen as a bid to secure more support from other nations.

Pakistan’s strategic use of refugees takes place in a world where the flagrant use of such tactics is becoming normalised. However, using refugees in power politics comes with serious consequences, which go well beyond humanitarian issues and pose a real threat to regional and international security. As the fate of refugees and migrants continues to top the political agenda, we can expect to see more of this tactic in 2017. And we must face the inevitable security problems that come with it.