Afghan migrants wait for registration on the outskirts of northwest Pakistan’s Peshawar, Oct. 30, 2023. On 3 October, Pakistan’s government abruptly issued an order asking all foreigners living in the country without legal status to leave within 28 days or face deportation, a decision impacting undocumented Afghan migrants. But Afghan migrants have a long history in Pakistan, dating back to the 1970s. IMAGO/Xinhua.
Afghan migrants wait for registration on the outskirts of northwest Pakistan’s Peshawar, Oct. 30, 2023. On 3 October, Pakistan’s government abruptly issued an order asking all foreigners living in the country without legal status to leave within 28 days or face deportation, a decision impacting undocumented Afghan migrants. But Afghan migrants have a long history in Pakistan, dating back to the 1970s. IMAGO/Xinhua.

Interview: The precarity of Afghan migrants in Pakistan

Political scientist and author Sanaa Alimia speaks of the long history of racial profiling, harassment and deportation of Afghan migrants, in the context of Pakistan’s recent crackdown

This is a machine-generated, minimally copy-edited transcript of a podcast interview and may contain inaccuracies. For exactness, please refer to the recording here

Raisa Wickrematunge: Today we have with us Sanaa Alimia, a political scientist with a focus on migration, surveillance, and urbanity. Sanaa is Assistant Professor at the Aga Khan University and is the author of Refugee Cities, a history of Afghan migration to urban Pakistan since the 1970s.

On 3 October, Pakistan's government issued an order asking all foreigners living in the country without legal status to leave within 28 days or face deportation. The order impacted Afghan refugees living in Pakistan. In the run-up to the deadline, Afghan refugees have faced heightened harassment, assault and arbitrary detention at the hands of Pakistani police. 

What is the history of Afghan migration to Pakistan, and how has their presence shaped the country? Here to talk to us about this is Sanaa Alimia. Sanaa, welcome to the podcast!

Sanaa Alimia: Thank you so much for having me.

Raisa: What have you been hearing about the current situation of the refugees leaving Pakistan? Have any of  the people that you spoke to for your book have been impacted by the deadline that's been given?

Sanaa: There's been quite excellent reporting and documentation that's been taking place by activists, human rights organisations, as well as journalists working on the ground,who have been trying to engage with what's happening to their communities too, because of course, as I contend in my work, the Afghans in Pakistan are a part of Pakistan and have been in the country for, in most cases, for many, many years, and they have a shared sense of community and belonging. 

So many of the folks who are engaged in these processes are trying to document what is happening and trying to lobby for it to stop, and the reports that are coming in are quite harrowing. I also have, of course, folks and contacts and people who I've worked with over the years who are telling me many things of how worried and how scared they are, or how they have taken cover within the context of the towns and cities in which they're living and are basically trying just to not leave their homes for fear of being subject to forms of harassment from the law enforcement agencies. So that's a similar story that we've been seeing taking place over the past few weeks, but I also have to say, has been really taking place a lot throughout this year in particular too. And what I'd like to say is that the government supposedly was targeting, it said, undocumented migrants, but the reality is that the law enforcement agencies have not distinguished between the various legal definitions of who's eligible to stay within the country or not. And that's had massive implications for the general Afghan society within the country, as well as for Pashtuns, Pakistani citizens who are Pashtun origin too, because there have been many cases of reports that are telling us that Pakistani Pashtuns have also been arrested and have also been detained. 

“Pakistan’s government was supposedly targeting undocumented migrants, but in reality law enforcement agencies have not made clear who’s eligible to stay in the country or not. And that’s had massive implications.”

Now, I'd like to emphasise that I'm not saying, and I don't think that this is simply a question of law enforcement agencies acting, you know, in a wrong way or acting as a few bunch of bad apples. Because, of course, we know, and the works of scholars like Hassan Abbas, who has focused on the police within Pakistan, as well as Zoha Waseem, who's worked on Karachi and policing in Karachi, we know that the police do not have a good reputation within Pakistan. Many of the reasons for this are also rooted in colonial legacies of British policing that shaped the subcontinent. Much of this is also shaped by the fact that in the case of Pakistan, certainly I can say this, that the police have been chronically underfunded. So in many cases in ordinary life, in day-to-day life, racialised groups, the poor, are often subject to forms of profiling for the simple reason that law enforcement agencies might want to make some extra money. You know, there is this economic rationale behind the aggressions of law enforcement agencies, but that's not what's happening at this current moment in time. What's happening in this current moment in time is a lot more than corruption. 

There's been reporters on the ground and Afghans who've been living in Karachi have said, you know, normally if the police harass us, we pay them off with a bribe, a large bribe, but now in these cases this is not even working. So the issue is not clearly just a few bad apples or off an economic system and a need to make an extra buck. Somewhere along the line, and I think that this has been a purposeful misdirection and a purposeful strategy of creating confusion by the government, where they have not issued, and they did not issue in a timely way, circulars to say what their position was or to say, 'Actually don't deport POR cardholders', (these are folks who are considered to be registered refugees), or 'Don't deport ACC cardholders', (these are people who are registered by the International Organization of Migration). And I think that this strategy was done purposefully by the government, where directives and clear indication of who is meant to be targeted and who's not meant to be targeted was done as a way to create this disorder, because they know that if they create this disorder they can unleash the law enforcement agencies to act with impunity as they wish, and that is effectively what has taken place. The law enforcement agencies appear to have been given a free hand to be able to do what they like. This I think is a crucial kind of setting of the scene of what's happening in the current moment. 

Raisa: Would you say that this deportation order is sudden or is it something that the country has been slowly building towards?

Sanaa: In a simple way, the answer to your question is yes, this is something that the government has been working towards, or what you could say is that it's no surprise to those of us who have been working on Afghans in Pakistan for a number of years. The reason I would say this is that, you know, cases of large-scale harassment and deportation of Afghans have been ongoing, particularly since the mid-2000s, particularly more intensified after 2010, and they have been well documented in my own work, but also in works of other journalists, other scholars, as well as various Human Rights Watch reports as well. 

I would also say that the entire kind of premise of Afghans being in Pakistan has always been laced with precarity and insecurity from the start,meaning there were never the conditions from the beginning that were created with the intention to welcome Afghans into the country as folks who could possibly become legally integrated within the state. I want to consider this in regards to the context that when we're speaking about Afghan migration into Pakistan, most of this started in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Afghans were given, on first encounter, refugee recognition status in the spirit of the United Nations 1951 Convention regarding refugees and the 1967 Protocol. Pakistan is of course not a signatory to the Convention and to the Protocol, but in the 1981 handbook of refugee management that was issued by the government of Pakistan, it said that it would act in its spirit and the UNHCR, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, was always active in the country since 1979. 

The welcome of Afghans changes within Pakistan as a consequence of geopolitics over time, but there was never that intent to provide the vast majority of Afghans within the country with pathways to legal integration

So Afghans in the 1980s were given rights as refugees or recognised as refugees, but at the same time this hospitality and this welcome was always limited. There was never a pathway to legal integration. The idea was that refugees would return. So Afghans were welcome but always kept at a legal distance and were always meant to be not fully included within the state, and this is no surprise given that you know, Pakistan doesn't have a refugee law, it doesn't have a national refugee law or processes of asylum. We're still operating on the colonial era 1947 foreigners law and you know the 1951 Citizenship Act in Pakistan has made some pathways for non-citizens to become citizens, but the concept of asylum and refuge hasn't been fully addressed. So there's longer lived experiences of Afghans in Pakistan where they are welcomed but to be kept at a distance in the legal sense. They're welcome as they are useful for a geopolitical goal which is always something that suits an establishment that is dominated by the military, but there is a legal distance that needs to be kept. Similarly in the 1990s Afghans are welcome because Pakistan, as has been discussed by a number of scholars and a number of works, and has been well documented, now wanted to have influence in Afghanistan vis-a-vis the support of the Afghan Taliban that emerged in the 1990s. 

But the violence really really takes that shift after the 2000s, 2001 when the US and its allies launched the War on Terror, invading Afghanistan through military occupation in a quest to defeat the Taliban who as we know were never defeated and Pakistan was a part of that struggle. Pakistan joined the US as a key ally and a key base and it's at this point that any new Afghans coming into Pakistan would not be considered refugees. So the legal language changes on Afghans after 2001 and it really gets implemented much forcefully in 2005 – they are no longer considered to be refugees but are considered to be illegal migrants by the government. I'm using the government language here. So the focus in the 2000s and 2010s becomes this idea of Afghan refugee repatriation. It's the order of the day for Pakistan international humanitarian agencies, the US, its allies as well as the newly installed Afghan government under Hamid Karzai and then later Ashraf Ghani. Why? Because of course the US and its allies want to say Afghanistan is safe and the Taliban have been defeated, which of course they hadn't been, and the European countries are also engaged in their own processes of anti-migration policies particularly against the poor, particularly against black and brown migrants. 

All of this is a longer way of explaining how the welcome of Afghans changes within the country as a consequence of geopolitics from the 1970s, 1980s to the 2000s and also to say simultaneously the geopolitical context shifts but also at the same time there was never that legal intent and legal framework that was able to be provided to the vast majority of Afghans within the country to gain some pathways to legal integration and this was never really propelled and put forward either by international humanitarian aid agencies or the regime. Always the focus was really primarily on repatriation. What we see happening is we have the geopolitical context and the legal context that create the conditions in which violence is able to take place in the 2000s, 2010s in particular and throughout the 2000s and 2010s as I mentioned cases of violence against Afghans in Pakistan, particularly from low income areas but also sometimes also middle class, lower middle class folks as well find themselves subject to various forms of racialisation, various forms of harassment in much more intense ways, and this is when you see much larger attempts at harassment or deportation taking place too which allow the current moment to take place. 

So I would say that what's happened throughout these processes in the 2000s, 2010s the violence that unfolded as a consequence of this precarious legal status and as a consequence of geopolitics and being emboldened by all of these other actors has allowed the government today in 2023 to have the absolute confidence that their absurd and brazen cause to deport 1.7 million Afghans would be okay and they may possibly get away with it. 

Raisa: Many of the refugees that you interviewed for your book had to push for basic rights and resources upon arrival in Pakistan including access to water. Can you tell us how these refugees navigated these difficulties? 

Sanaa: In many cases, the folks who I was working with in my book, were primarily centring on low income housing areas, informal housing areas on the outskirts of the cities that I was working in Peshawar and Karachi, this rural to urban interface. Many times these people faced lots of problems with access to basic forms of  infrastructure, water, sewage, basic sanitation, gas, electricity and the like. The people that I was working with were not living in refugee camps or refugee-tented villages as they're known, they were living in these informal housing areas, often side by side with Pakistanis of similar class standings. In terms of being able to access goods and being able to access rights, most people were not eligible for or were not given rights to water, rights to housing and the like. And this was also true of many Pakistani citizens as well. 

So one of the ways in which people used to circumvent this as much as they possibly could was to engage in various forms of community organising, trying to get access to water by coming up with a deal with a middleman or trying to do surveys of an entire neighborhood to determine how many people there were so that they could determine how much water was needed and they could make a deal with somebody, a private actor or entrepreneur who was able to supply the particular area with water.

Raisa: Something that you've also spoken about is how Afghan refugees ended up creating their own sense of place and home. Can you explain how they shaped the areas that they lived in in Pakistan? 

Sanaa: Yeah, in many cases, you know, they built entire neighbourhoods, entire areas of trade or people have transformed kind of how agriculture is done, particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwah in areas like Charsadda and Nowshera by introducing new techniques of farming or understanding the land a little bit better. So there have been these kinds of transformative impacts in that sense. 

Also, much of what I try to document is the instances and the cases where we talk about urban development in major cities, the building of suburban housing areas, the buildings of roads. Much of this was done by a labour force of Afghan refugees and Afghan migrants, who were the main sources of many of these kind of big projects that are taken and understood to be the success stories of urban development within say Peshawar or even in some spaces in neighbourhoods within Karachi, agricultural transformations within Punjab and the like. 

The people I was working with were not living in refugee camps, they were living in informal housing areas, often side by side with Pakistanis of similar class standings.

A very simple example that I can think of off the top of my head is a neighbourhood in Peshawar called Hayatabad, which is kind of understood as a urban planning success story within Pakistan and within Peshawar because it's kind of quite, you know, nice well-planned suburban housing areas and much of those have urban housing areas. And the first phases, certainly, of Hayatabad were built by Afghan refugees who lived directly opposite, a couple of kilometres walk away in a major refugee camp. That would actually become the refugee camp where Angelina Jolie and Stephen McCurry would take these famous photographs of these refugees. 

So I think that that was the story that I was trying to tell, that the transformations of Pakistan are done in many ways through the exploitation of a cheap and racialised labor workforce. But this doesn't mean for example that solidarities of people and of communities, particularly of shared class standings don't take place, because they do. And throughout the stories that I'm telling is that whilst you also have these massive structural inequalities and you also have various forms of discrimination, you also have people working side by side with each other for shared class status or for shared working class status who are working together in face of various forms of violence and structural discrimination as a means to improve their lives. 

Raisa: How did the experience of Afghan refugees in cities like Karachi differ from those living in areas like Peshawar? 

Sanaa: So I worked in both of these areas. You know, Karachi is a country almost in itself. How many million people are there, we don't know. And it's a very multicultural city that's been affected by capitalism in a different way. It's a port city, you know, 23 million people, 30 million people, one of the largest megacities alongside Mumbai and Dhaka, where various ethnicities are a part of it. And capitalism means that, you know, there is greater and varied economic development within the country. It's much more of a metropolitan capital and it used to be, of course, the former political capital of Pakistan and it still remains the economic hub of the country. 

And Peshawar is a different city in the sense, it's much smaller with its population of 5 million people or so. At the moment, it's a Pashtun majority city. The vast majority of Peshawar's residents are Pashtun-speaking and the vast majority of Peshawar's Afghans are also Pashtun speaking, although there were also many Farsi speaking Afghans also in Peshawar. 

In Karachi, the Afghan makeup is much more multi-ethnic. You have many more Uzbeks, Tajiks, Turkmens, Hazaras, as well as Pashtun Afghans living within the city. So the makeup of the different groups of people that I was working with also varied across these two different urban spaces. And the economic structures of the city also meant that some of the lived experiences of the Afghans within these spaces were different. And what was also interesting is that a lot of the precarities over land were quite different in some of the cases in which I was working. Let me explain that a little bit, because a lot of my work in the cases of Karachi and of Peshawar were concerned with low-income areas, informal housing areas, the katchi abadi and how people access resources, goods and the like, and sometimes even how they built their homes.

In Karachi, what I would often find is that the chances of being subject to various forms of eviction would always be a little bit higher than they would be in Peshawar. And that was because the contests over land were much more pronounced, where the contests over land were taking place oftentimes on private land and various landholders trying to claim the land as their own by settling migrant groups, refugees and citizens onto the land to lay claims to it, which often led to various lived insecurities. And Peshawar, as we know, is a city that is very close to Afghanistan. It's a border city in many ways and has often been governed through prisms of geopolitics. It's governed almost as a frontier city. What this basically means is that oftentimes when Afghans were settling to live in informal housing areas on the rural to urban interface in Peshawar, they were not settling on "contested land". They weren't settling on contested land that was being battled over by two different landlords or those who were trying to claim the land as their own. Often they settled on land that was being rented out by a Pakistani small landholder, for example. So the land tenure and the land security was a bit more secure in that the evictions that they faced were not the same as they would be facing in the context of Karachi. And I found that a really interesting way of how we think about cities within Pakistan, from Peshawar to Karachi, and the different politics that shape and frame and govern it, and thereby also govern the lives of the poor in terms of land security and land insecurity. 

In Karachi, what I would often find is that the chances of being subject to various forms of eviction would always be a little bit higher than they would be in Peshawar. And that was because the contests over land were much more pronounced.

The question that you may also be thinking of is, does it mean that Afghans were at home in Peshawar because Peshawar is a Pashto majority speaking city? This is what many people often tend to assume. And one in five residents of Peshawar are Afghan and often Pashto speaking. But ultimately when it comes down to these moments of geopolitics and legality and the state clamping down on Afghan refugees, and the legality and geopolitics of it are much more powerful than kind of like a shared cultural and ethnic sense of belonging. It's a real misconception I think that people have that everything is fine in Peshawar for Afghans and, you know, they're at home and nobody harasses them. I did many, many instances and many cases that I was documenting for my work and for other endeavours where the violence that many Afghans faced including if they were Pashto speakers in Peshawar was particularly pronounced and it's not that it was absent or not taking place there as well. And that's also because of course, you know, the law enforcement agencies across the border may not always act in the best interests of the people within the country in mind, as we've mentioned, underfunding resources and bigger structural factors mean that you know, the police may be targeting and do target the poor and racialised groups, and for Afghans in Peshawar they were still considered to be non-Pakistanis, right, and that still did matter in their day-to-day lives.

Raisa: I also wanted to ask whether you can recommend any books, movies or podcasts apart from your book, of course, to those who want to learn more about Afghan refugee presence in Pakistan?

Sanaa: Yes, there's brilliant works and scholarship that's kind of being done and taking place and the first person I'd probably recommend who has looked at Afghans in Afghanistan as well as in Pakistan and who provides really helpful framings of how we understand how Afghans are racialised within not just Afghanistan and not just by the British or by the Americans but also generally by South Asians too is, I'd read the work of Anila Daulatzai. She's done some brilliant scholarship on Afghans across the region. There is also the brilliant work of Paniz Musawi Natanzi who looks at Afghan artists across South Asia. There's also great work that's been done by feminist writers in Pakistan. Saba Gul Khattak has written on women, Afghan women. Saadia Toor has written really well about the constructions of Afghan women within western mediascapes. In terms of refugees, I would also encourage reading the work of Zehra Hashmi who has looked at how ID cards are being used and rolled out by the government of Pakistan and NADRA, the National Database Registration Authority, and in the processes of rolling out these ID cards, they're often kind of like excluding Pakistani citizens through these processes. So those are some of the four people I can immediately think of off the top of my head that I would really recommend. 

I'd also perhaps say that the work of Shahram Khosravi who has worked on migration in Europe of Afghans and of Iranians but he also wrote a really brilliant text in 2010 called "Illegal" Traveller, and it's an auto-ethnography of borders as an Iranian who moves from Iran into Pakistan actually and then to Europe but through his short but brilliant auto-ethnography, we also hear about the Afghan stories in Pakistan as well. So these are just some of the people I would perhaps recommend. 

Raisa: Thank you so much Sanaa for taking the time to chat to us and for giving us this overview of Afghan migrant presence in Pakistan since the 1970s. 

Sanaa: Thank you very much for having me!


Himal Southasian