Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Imran Khan has pledged to grant Pakistani citizenship to 1.5 million Afghan refugees and 200,000 million Bangladeshi refugees, many of whom have been living in Pakistan for decades. The statement came without prior warning and has sent shockwaves throughout Pakistan’s political community.
While it remains the case that much of the terrorism visited upon Pakistan’s soil since the turn of the millennium has derived from Afghanistan, it is also the case that Pakistan’s houses over 2.7 million refugees in total, the highest number of any nation in the world according to the United Nations. Ultimately, the vast majority of these refugees are anything but terrorists, although the burden of hosting the refugees has nevertheless taken its toll on Pakistan’s economy. Because of this, the government was faced with the very practical issue of what to do regarding the legal status of the refugees who for all intents and purposes had no place to return to.
The answer for Imran Khan was one that is legally pragmatic, culturally significant and one that is self-evidently humane. In terms of the practicality of Imran’s decision, as it is clear that the vast majority of refugees in Pakistan have fled from genuine political and social persecution and as such are likely permanently unwelcome in the places from whence they derived, the question which necessarily arises is as follows: is it better for Pakistan to have a permanent underclass of social and legal outcasts among whom extremism could easily flourish, or otherwise is it better to legally and practically integrate these individuals into Pakistani society and in so doing turn potential outcasts into integral and productive members of Pakistan’s society with a shared stake in the country’s collective future? In choosing the later option, Imran Khan has shown great social foresight.
While multiple Kabul regimes have threatened Pakistan’s territorial unity by promoting the violent concept of a Greater Pashtunistan and while the current authorities in Kabul like their predecessors still refuse to recognise the Durand Line as the internationally legitimate border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, Imran Khan’s plan does not play into Kabul’s hands but instead brings shame upon decades of inadequate leadership in Afghanistan. Most of the Afghan born refugees in Pakistan have fled across the Durand Line because they have suffered oppression at the hands of Kabul’s various regimes and the wars they have wrought upon the country. Because of this, rather than reject these refugees, Pakistan is right to embrace them and in so doing embracing the self-evident subtext that while Afghanistan cannot even take care of its own, Pakistan is prepared to integrate those born outside its borders and elevate them to the level of equal citizen.
Likewise, the Bangladeshi born refugees in Pakistan come from a nation that was once part of Pakistan. The fact that after 1971 some ethnic Bengalis migrated from what was previously East Pakistan to the current borders of Pakistan was not out of any ill will but out of self-preservation. They too should not be punished for the political circumstances that transpired around them through no fault of their own.
The disastrous migrant crisis in Europe has led many to fear that the term ‘refugee’ is being used too loosely and as such it is indicative of economic migrants or even terrorists disgusting their true identity and intentions, as opposed to genuine refugees. While this is a sad reality in many parts of the world today and while Pakistan has been infiltrated by multiple terrorists from bordering nations, Imran Khan’s decision is one that ultimately rewards the innocent with a substantial measure of justice while helping to save a future generation of refugee offspring from becoming a permanent underclass.
While New Delhi has recently rendered 4 million Muslims in the Indian state of Assam stateless, Imran Khan’s pledge to normalise the status of refugees in Pakistan demonstrates not only his outward compassion but his long term thinking which has a solid foundation in the knowledge that in order to avoid a fractious society from which extremism can breed, it becomes necessary to elevate all residents of the nation to a position where they take an equal share of responsibility for the nation’s future.