Flickr / UNHCR UN Refugee Agency
Flickr / UNHCR UN Refugee Agency

Who counts as a refugee?

The geopolitics of Afghan and Bangladeshi migrants in Pakistan and the potential for an amnesty on migrants.

Pakistan is home to millions of migrants – either undocumented ('illegal') migrants or refugees – predominantly from Central and South Asia. The most well-known of these are Afghans who have been living in Pakistan (primarily Quetta and Peshawar, and, in smaller numbers, Karachi) since the onset of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and, because of the continued conflicts in Afghanistan, have continued to live there. Currently there are approximately three to four million Afghans in Pakistan, of which 1.6 million are registered as refugees with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). The rest are understood to be undocumented migrants. Next in line are approximately one to two million Bangladeshi migrants who primarily live in Karachi. Others such as Burmese migrants, Sri Lankans, and Iranians, to name just a few groups, are also present in the city. This discussion, however, shall primarily focus on Afghans and Bangladeshis as a result of my fieldwork experiences.

In legal terms in Pakistan, 'Bengalis' are East Pakistanis who came to Pakistan before 1971 and are considered legal citizens of Pakistan and number approximately 40,000. However, there have recently been many reported cases in which the Pakistani identity of such pre-1971 Bengali migrants or their families has not been recognised. Anyone who came after 1971 is considered an undocumented Bangladeshi migrant. Their presence in Karachi is explained by the fact that Karachi was the hub of Muslim migration from Muslim-minority areas in India to Pakistan in 1947, as well as for migrants from erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).

During my doctoral research – a comparative study of the lives of Afghan refugees and Pakistani citizens – I was intrigued to find that there is a near silence from the Pakistani government, international governments, and the international migration regime (nongovernmental organizations, international institutions and laws that manage issues of forced displacement) on the issue of Bangladeshis in Pakistan. In Karachi, as I searched for Afghans or Pakistanis to interview, I was surprised by the number of interviews I ended up doing with Bangladeshis. As a result I found myself asking why the attention on one group of migrants – Afghan refugees – is prioritised over another group – Bangladeshis? And why is it that large numbers of Bangladeshis, many of whom are in Pakistan because of the 1971 Secession of East Pakistan/ Bangladeshi War of Independence, have never been given formal refugee status and/or have received minimal attention from humanitarian organisations and the media (local, national, and international)? As I probed these questions I found myself returning to geopolitics as a key factor in determining who counts as a refugee or as a person worthy of political and humanitarian attention.

"We are nobody"
During the 1980s and 1990s, international governments and the international migration regime pumped money into Pakistan to provide relief for the massive migrations of Afghans into Pakistan. At the same time, this money was intended to help defeat the Soviet 'menace' in the context of the Cold War. Helping victims of the Soviet Union became an important tactic to win a public relations campaign and support of the Afghan resistance based in Pakistan. In the 2000s and 2010s, in the context of the Global War on Terror (GWOT), the UNHCR working with the Government of Pakistan (GOP), has intensely monitored Afghans in Pakistan through nationwide surveys and biometric identity cards. As well as helping humanitarian organisations, this surveying is connected with ongoing counterinsurgency tactics being practiced in Afghanistan and Pakistan by US-led forces. That is, it helps to 'know' the enemy in order to win a war.

However, Bangladeshis in Pakistan have never received such attention – negative or positive – and are left without any legal status – national or international, in Pakistan. During the 1971 conflict and the bloodshed that the Pakistani military perpetrated in Dhaka and elsewhere, many Bengalis in Karachi silently migrated out of Pakistan toward Bangladesh for fear of military reprisals, as well as to be a part of the new Bangladeshi nation. However, for many with lives spanning the two states, the story was more complex. Many chose to remain in Pakistan – those who are now classified as Pakistani Bengalis (with 'Bengali' an ethnicity), whilst others moved across to Karachi for political as well as economic and environmental reasons (flooding in Bangladesh) in the 1970s and in subsequent years. These latter people are classified as illegal Bangladeshis, not citizens and not quite refugees. Without any form of legal recognition or international attention these people are simply 'nobodies', living and working in the shadowy peripheries of Pakistan's urban underbellies as daily labourers and factory workers, earning the lowest incomes in Karachi. Indeed, whilst refugees are also positioned outside of the space of national law, and therefore not given full political and legal recognition, they do have some recognition from international law and humanitarian organisations, which means they are in a better position compared to undocumented migrants, who, to put it crudely, simply don't exist.

From 2010 to 2012 I conducted interviews with Afghan refugees and Pakistanis in Karachi's informal housing areas. Very quickly, from different voices on the ground, I was asked: 'but what about the Bengalis* in Karachi – will you pay attention to them?' (At other times, Bengali was replaced with Sri Lankan or Burmese). Very soon I realised that in order to really understand Southasian urban centres and subaltern politics it is important to appreciate the multiple nationalities that are often a part of this space, particularly in the case of Karachi.

On one occasion, as I walked into an informal housing area of inner Karachi with closely-packed homes and bustling with hawkers to conduct an interview, my 'guide' Mukhtar** told me, "Nearly everyone here is Bengali. Some people have moved recently for economic reasons, to get jobs, and others have been here since the 1970s." We paused for a while before going into the house of Mukhtar's family's friends, who have been living in Karachi since 1971. In the house I sat down to interview Shahnaz, a woman in her 30s, and her younger sisters. As I asked Shahnaz about life in the city and getting access to everyday goods – water, education, employment – Shahnaz told me: "At least Afghans have some form of identity cards, we do not even have any document to say who we are – we are nobody."

In another interview in the same area, 32-year-old Noorulain repeated this sentiment as she told me her story:

Our family was living across the borders when the [1971] war happened, my father was here [in Karachi] and then afterwards my mother joined him, and slowly we moved across [from Dhaka] as well – we had to move. I was born here, I went to school here. My children go to school here.  But the government does not recognise us. Nor does any organisation. We are nobody.

My curiosity about this topic grew through the conversations I had. Bangladeshis in Pakistan, as a 'non-existent' group, are vulnerable to excesses of state and non-state actors because there is no one who speaks up for them. As literature on the informal political economy in urban Pakistan increasingly shows, these people are reliant on the ever-growing presence of middlemen, fixers, and the like. According to one GOP official I interviewed:

The Bengalis, as the most insecure population, are often robbed of their possessions by the police. The National Aliens Registration Authority [a government organisation established to register illegal migrants] is a half-working scheme and has only been launched in Karachi. They [the Bangladeshis] have no identity cards and documents and the state requires greater support to address this issue.

The neglect that Bangladeshis face is, in part, related to unresolved issues from the 1971 War, in which hundreds of thousands of Pakistani Biharis were left stranded in Bangladesh by the GOP, remaining there today. "If the Pakistani government recognises the Bangladeshis in Pakistan, the state will have to accept responsibility for the Biharis," a human rights lawyer in Karachi told me. In other cases the line between political and economic migrant blurs as many Bangladeshis have migrated in search of jobs and income rather than political persecution. 

Geopolitics matters
As I continued my work on Afghans, discovering the intense ways in which they are enumerated and managed in Pakistan, another more glaring explanation for the differences in international and Pakistani attention towards Bangladeshis versus Afghans was revealed. Geopolitics, it appears, matters greatly. Massive attention has been paid to Afghans in Pakistan; they have been constructed as refugees in need of help in order to support the 'hearts and minds' public relations campaigns of the US and its allies, Saudi Arabia, and the GOP, to legitimise conflicts against the Soviet Union or Taliban. Or more recently, in the context of the GWOT, Afghans have been constructed as dangerous, threats that need to be monitored, enumerated, and quantified, by the US and its allies, in order to ensure a successful counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. Bangladeshis, on the other hand, are less 'useful' in geopolitical terms. Firstly, the conflict between Bangladesh and Pakistan was over relatively quickly in the 1970s. Secondly, after 1971 Bangladesh was not an immediate territorial border concern for the (West) Pakistani state dominated by the Punjab, as was the case with Afghanistan. And thirdly, it was not an internationalised conflict involving global superpowers as the wars in Afghanistan have been.

International institutions such as the UNHCR are influenced by hegemonic superpowers via funding. The separation between humanitarianism, counterinsurgency strategies, and wider geopolitical pressures is thin. The international migration regime via seemingly neutral organisations such as the UNHCR and, more recently, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), are complicit with, or at least vulnerable to, the wider political goals of global superpowers. Again, they are not necessarily concerned with the 'humanitarianism' to which they lay claim. In this scenario then, Bangladeshis in Pakistan are – alongside others – quite simply geopolitically irrelevant.

Critically, however, this does not mean that Afghans are currently having a 'great time' in Pakistan. After the Afghan state was blamed for sheltering the perpetrators of the September 2001 attacks, and Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf promptly joined the US-led GWOT, the Pakistani military-political leadership was keen on making clear the distinction between the 'Bad Muslim' Afghan state and the 'Good Muslim' Pakistani state, which included their people. This has meant that whilst Afghans in Pakistan have been enumerated and given identity cards, this has been done to encourage Afghan repatriation back to Afghanistan, both voluntarily and coercively since the 2000s. It has also meant that whilst during the 1980s all Afghans were classified as 'refugees', the Afghan legal status has now moved to 'Afghan citizens in Pakistan' (via biometric identity cards) with 'temporary residency', or simply 'illegal migrants' (undocumented workers). Indeed throughout my work, Afghans were all too aware that the increased insecurity they were experiencing in Pakistan was the result of changing foreign policy goals of the GOP and the USA and its allies.

Recognising multi-national spaces
In the longer term, the ability of Pakistan to effectively deal with the multiple issues regarding migration into Pakistan is rooted in a number of factors, including colonial legacies of 'boundary-making', and the idea that migration is unusual. In addition, and in contrast to the ongoing hyperbole in the global North over migration numbers into Europe, North America, and Australia, it is the countries of the global South, including Pakistan, that are the largest recipients of refugees. Huge economic and political pressures are put on these states. Furthermore, Pakistan itself is undergoing numerous difficulties: political violence, internal displacement, and a weakened economy from neo-liberal economic reforms, meaning it lacks the capacity to provide for refugees, migrants, and, importantly, even its own citizens.

In the short term it is only if the international migration regime is encouraged to be engaged with persons who are geopolitically 'insignificant', as well as those who are 'significant', that the lived experiences of Bangladeshis, Afghans, and others in Pakistan can be different. However, the UNHCR and/or the IOM and the wider migration regime can only function effectively if they are given greater independence to do so. For real change, it is also necessary to step beyond simple 'refugee'/'illegal migrant'/'citizen' frameworks. Urban centres such as Karachi, Peshawar, Rawalpindi, Quetta and Lahore are multinational spaces. Millions of non-nationals – either undocumented workers or refugees – are an integral part of these cities. These people have limited scope to return to their native homelands or live lives across national borders, dividing their time between Kabul and Peshawar, for example.

Walking Peshawar or Karachi's neighbourhoods, shops and roads, or using the cities' transport routes, you cannot escape the diverse reality of these places. As I sat in the home of Hamza, an Afghan native of Peshawar, I was told: "It is we, Afghans, who built up the new roads that you see in Peshawar." And in Karachi, Jahanara, a Bangladeshi domestic worker, told me: "It is we who clean the houses and are employed as domestic labourers in the richer houses. But we are invisible, first because we are poor and, second, because we are not Pakistani."

Whilst Pakistan itself was founded on migration during Partition in 1947, and the immediate years thereafter, the refugees and migrants from Bangladesh after 1971 and Afghanistan after 1978, and others thereafter, are not welcome. This is in large part because the number of refugees moving into Southern countries, such as Pakistan, relative to movement into Northern countries is substantially larger. This reflects wide power asymmetries in the international system and creates significant demographic, political, and economic impacts on host states. Further, some commentators – academics, journalists, politicians – are wary that Afghans and Bangladeshis, if naturalised in the future, may contribute towards ethnic tensions during electoral ballots in cities like Karachi, with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement Party (MQM) associated with Muslim Indian migrants in Sindh coveting Bangladeshi votes, and the Awami National Party (ANP), associated with Pakistani Pashtuns, coveting Afghan votes.

Yet discussions and long-term strategies regarding the position of Afghans, Bangladeshis, and other migrants in Pakistan need to take place. The reality of millions of 'non-nationals' being an integral and long-term part of Pakistan is inescapable. A potential amnesty scheme towards undocumented migrants and refugees, or at the very least long-term work and/or residency permits, needs to be tabled. And forcefully. This would allow the Government of Pakistan to recognise what is already a reality in the country, and simultaneously offer some form of stability to people who contribute towards the state's society and economy.

* In Pakistan people use the term Bengali to mean anyone from Bangladesh, even after 1971, as it also encompasses an ethnic group.

** All names of informants have been changed to protect their identity. 

~ Sanaa Alimia teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London, and has previously taught at the University of Peshawar. Her work focuses on refugees, migration, citizenship, and urban politics in Pakistan.

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