Eine Frau geht an einer Weltkarte, die aus Kinderporträts besteht, am Freitag (18.06.2010) im JuniorMuseum in Köln vorbei.

5.6.2019 | Von:
Sanaa Alimia

Afghan Refugees in Pakistan

Pakistan hosts approximately three million Afghans. Which events triggered their migration to Pakistan? How does Pakistan deal with these migrants, and what is known about their living conditions? An overview.

Islamabad, Pakistan: Bei einer Veranstaltung des UNHCR zum Weltflüchtlingstag 2018 führen geflüchtete Männer aus Afghanistan einen traditionellen Tanz vor.Islamabad: Young Afghan men present a traditional dance at a UNHCR event marking World Refugee Day 2018. (© picture-alliance/AP)

Politics and the media speak of a refugee crisis in Europe. However, most of the world’s refugees are not living in Europe but are primarily in Asia, Africa, the Arab region, and South America where they are either internally displaced persons (IDPs) within their home states or refugees in neighbouring states. Given that most of these host states are amongst the poorer countries of the world, the presence of IDPs and refugees places a strain on their government resources and infrastructure, and may lead to social and political tensions.

Today Afghans are one of the largest groups seeking asylum in Europe, however, since the 1970s most have been living in neighbouring Pakistan and Iran. [1] This short paper gives an overview of the Afghan story in Pakistan. It provides some historical background to cross-border migrations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, outlines Pakistan’s laws and policies toward Afghan refugees, presents some key facts about the demographics of Afghans in Pakistan, and gives some insights into current living conditions for Afghans in Pakistan.

The History of Afghan Migration into Pakistan

Historically, there has always been some movement of individuals and groups across what is today known as the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. This is because shared ethno-linguistic groups such as Pashtuns, Hazaras, and Gujjars are found on both sides of the border. When the Afghanistan-British India border (also known as the Durand Line) was negotiated in 1893 under British colonial rule, it was shaped by a fluid, semi-autonomous geographic ‘buffer zone’ called the Tribal Areas (located on the side of British India). [2] In 1947, after the independence and partition of British India into two new nation-states, India and Pakistan, Pakistan inherited this fluid border and buffer zone, which was renamed as Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Until March 2018 FATA remained outside of the full grip of the Pakistani constitution (Article 247). In practice this meant that it was difficult to regulate population flows across the border. Yet between 1947 and the 1970s most population movements were limited to a few thousand nomads, traders, and families with historic connections across both sides of the border. It was only in the 1970s when political conditions in Afghanistan changed, and especially with the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, that tens of thousands and then millions of Afghans sought refuge in Pakistan.

Political Conditions in Afghanistan: Over 40 Years of Conflict

1973-1978: Daoud Khan.
In 1973, the Afghan monarch, Zahir Shah Shah (in power 1933-1973) was overthrown in a coup d’état by his cousin and military leader, Daoud Khan (in power 1973-1978). The coup was followed by aggressive socialist inspired state centralisation. In response, a few thousand Afghans migrated to Pakistan. Additionally, smaller numbers of Afghans with enough resources migrated to Western Europe and North America.

1978-1979: The Rise of the PDPA.
In the 1970s, the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) emerged as a key player in Afghanistan. In April 1978, the PDPA overthrew and killed Daoud Khan in the Saur Revolution. The PDPA engaged in an even more radical and violent programme of state centralization and land reforms. This was met with significant resistance across the country. Larger and more spontaneous movements of individuals and groups to Pakistan started, and by the end of 1979 there were over 400,000 Afghans in Pakistan. [3]

1979-1988: The Soviet-Afghan War.
In December 1979, after the PDPA requested support from the Soviet Union to crush the resistance they faced, the Soviet Union started a war in Afghanistan by sending troops into the country. A massive humanitarian crisis followed and by the end of the war in 1988 some four to five million Afghans had sought refuge in Pakistan. In addition, some three million Afghans fled to Iran. Given that Afghanistan’s pre-war population was 13 million persons this means that more than half of the Afghan population was then living in exile. [4]

During this period, Afghans were welcomed in Pakistan and the fluid border was celebrated, because Pakistan wanted to have political influence in Afghanistan. This interest was driven by a desire to silence the tensions between the two states that had developed since Pakistan’s birth in 1947 during which time the Afghan state consistently rejected the legitimacy of the then determined borderline (the so-called Durand Line). The Afghan state and ruling elites were dominated by the Pashtun ethnic group and Pakistan was also concerned about its own Pashtun population in the northwest of the country, some of whom had historic links to the Afghan state and were pushing their own political agenda for a separate nation-state, “Pashtunistan”. Furthermore, Pakistan was closely allied to the U.S. who prioritised defeating the Soviet Union in the context of the Cold War. Therefore, Pakistan, the U.S., and their allies sponsored the Afghan Mujahideen (“holy warriors”), political Islamists, who were exiled in Pakistan and fought against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan.


Sound Bite

“During the Jihad [Soviet-Afghan War] we had so much attention from the world. There was so much money in the refugee camps and so much support, from the U.S., [West] Germany, Pakistan, and the [Gulf] Arabs. But now we have been left alone and are told to go back to Afghanistan."

Author's interview with a former Mujahideen fighter living in a Peshawar refugee camp, 2014.
1989-1992: End of the Soviet-Afghan War and the Start of Civil War.
In 1989, the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan defeated. This did not, however, mean an end to conflict. As the different factions of the Mujahideen returned to Afghanistan and made competing claims to power, a bitter civil war ensued. The Mujahideen forced the PDPA out of power in 1992 and persecuted former PDPA employed civil servants. The result was new waves of migrations to Pakistan and Iran.

1992-2001: Civil War and the Rise of the Taliban.
As the civil war continued, the Taliban were able to emerge and take over parts of the country. Between 1995 and 1998 the Taliban established a firm grip on Afghanistan. The rise of the Taliban saw the brutal persecution of Hazara Afghans (an ethnic and Ismaili Shia minority), many of whom migrated to Iran and Pakistan. Severe droughts and the degeneration of infrastructure in the course of the protracted conflict further pushed people out of Afghanistan.


Sound Bite

“I saw my father being killed. They shot him in front of our house. Some men [known Taliban fighters] came to our village and went after our men. My brother was away at the time, but they killed him when he returned, too. They shot him. He was only 23 years old. My mother has never been the same since. She and I left with my sisters to Karachi shortly after, when others were leaving the village. Things are better for us here. I work as a beautician in the city. But things are also changing for the worse here too… The men are being targeted again in [sectarian] killings."
Author's interview with a 24-year-old Afghan Hazara, Karachi, 2013.
2001-Present: The ‘War on Terror’.
Since 2001 any Afghan seeking refuge in Pakistan is classified as an undocumented migrant and not a refugee. The main aim of the Pakistani state has been to encourage Afghans to leave the country. In October 2001 the U.S. invaded Afghanistan after holding the Taliban government responsible for enabling Al-Qaeda to carry out the terrorist attacks of September 11. Pakistan, under President Pervez Musharraf, allied itself to the U.S. and tried to distance itself from the Taliban, despite clear links between the Pakistani state and the Afghan Taliban, many of whom were based in Pakistan. Within a few years, the war in Afghanistan also spilled over into Pakistan, in particular to its northwestern areas, including the FATA region. Due to the war in Afghanistan and the (ongoing) armed conflict in Pakistan between the military and the Taliban, Pakistan has faced internal and external pressure to better secure the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. This means improving its border management techniques, i.e. to better control cross-border population flows. The fluid border is no longer considered an asset.


Quick Facts

  • Since 2001, the war in Afghanistan has killed some 120,000 Afghans.*
  • The Taliban are still a strong presence in the country and the Islamic State (IS) is also active in the country.
  • Bombings are routine and massive with a huge psychological impact on the population.
  • Charges of government corruption are commonplace.
  • Patriarchal violence continues.
  • New waves of Afghan migration toward Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Europe, Australia, and North America are taking place, and include Afghan men, women, unaccompanied minors (usually boys), and families.**
* 111,442 people were killed in Afghanistan between 2001-2016. Since then at least 5,000 Afghans have been killed. See: N. C. Crawford. 2016. ‘War-related Death, Injury, and Displacement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2001 to mid-2016’. In Costs of War Project. Brown University. Available at: https://watson.brown.edu/ (accessed: 21-8-2018); United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. 2017. ‘Afghanistan: Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, Annual Report 2017’. Available at: https://unama.unmissions.org/ (accessed: 21-8-2018). ** S. Alimia. 2015. ‘Afghan (Re)Migration from Pakistan to Turkey: Transnational Norms and the ‘Pull’ of Pax-Ottomanica’. Insight Turkey. 16: 4, pp. 159-186.

Afghanistan-Pakistan Relations

Historically, the Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship has been marked by antagonism over the border, which the Afghan state has repeatedly rejected. Another source of conflict has been the support of the Afghan state for Pakistani Pashtun dissidents and its close relations with Pakistan’s existential rival, India. In the 1970s and 1980s, in the context of the Cold War, Pakistan welcomed Afghan refugees and particularly transnational Islamists as a way of gaining potential political influence in Afghanistan. Pakistan's support for the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in the 1990s followed the same logic. With the start of the Global War on Terror against the Taliban and the reconstruction of the Afghan state in the 2000s, the relationship between the two neighbours has reverted to older patterns. Successive Afghan governments have once again questioned the legitimacy of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and sought close links to India. Thus, regional geopolitics is key to understanding the position of Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s Laws and Policies Toward Afghans in Pakistan

Pakistan is not a signatory to the United Nations 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol. Pakistan also has no official Refugee Law. Section 4 of Pakistan’s 1951 Citizenship Act outlines that anyone born in Pakistan after 1951 is eligible for Pakistani citizenship, unless their parents come from an enemy state (a status reserved only for India and Israel). However, this stipulation has rarely been implemented and never for Afghans. [5] In 2018, the newly elected Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, of the Pakistan-Tehreek-e-Insaaf Party, promised all Afghans born in Pakistan would be give citizenship. However, the backlash against this move was so huge he had to backtrack on this offer.The only route to citizenship for Afghans is through marriage with a male Pakistani citizen; in practice, only Afghan women can acquire Pakistani citizenship through marriage (Section 10, 1951 Citizenship Act).


Quick facts

  • Afghan refugees in Pakistan have never been restricted to living in refugee camps. They are free to settle in different parts of the country, and they are free to seek employment.
  • A small number of Afghans have become Pakistani citizens through forgery of documents, bribery, and corruption.
  • Most Afghans in Pakistan are non-citizens and do not have the chance to be naturalized.

Afghans have been given institutional support in Pakistan, much of which began during the Soviet-Afghan War. In 1979, the government of Pakistan established a government department, the Chief Commissionerate for Afghan Refugees (CCAR), which is subject to the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions (SAFRON) and is charged with the management of all Afghan refugees in Pakistan. This includes refugees living in and outside of refugee camps. Key activities include providing land for refugee camps, coordinating relief activities with international organisations, education, and healthcare in refugee camps, and providing advice to Afghans living outside of refugee camps on a number of issues, including access to education and employment.

In addition, since 1979/80 the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has been active in Pakistan. Its main role has been to financially and institutionally support relief activities and provide protection to refugees. It has funded many of CCAR’s activities and has coordinated efforts of international aid agencies. When the Soviet-Afghan War ended, international aid for Afghans in Pakistan was dramatically reduced and continued to dwindle in the 1990s, leaving much of the financial burden of refugee management on the government of Pakistan or refugee communities themselves. Since 1994/95, for example, no food rations have been allocated to Afghans. In the 2000s and 2010s, UNHCR's main activities included supporting repatriation efforts, providing legal assistance, issuing birth certificates, and partially funding primary school education of Afghan children.

Since the 2000s Pakistan’s main policy toward Afghans in Pakistan has been to encourage them to participate in assisted voluntary repatriation (AVR) schemes. This is supported by UNHCR, the U.S. and other NATO member states that consider Afghanistan (or at least parts of the country) to be "safe" enough for return. A major component of the repatriation scheme has been to give Afghans ID cards in order to monitor how many individuals and families are returning.

In 2003, Pakistan signed the first of a series of Tripartite Agreements with the government of Afghanistan and UNHCR to manage Afghans in Pakistan and cross-border repatriation. CCAR and SAFRON have also produced two major policy programmes to manage the Afghan population in Pakistan and return to Afghanistan.[6] Despite the therewith established codes of conduct, different institutions and actors within the Pakistani government have carried out routine harassment and human rights abuses of Afghans. Human rights organizations suspect this to be a tactic to coerce Afghans into leaving the country. [7]

Pressure on Afghans is also fuelled by mainstream political parties and the media who regularly blame Afghans for terrorist attacks in the country. In the context of tensions between the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan Afghans living in Pakistan are often depicted as a suspicious “fifth-column” who must be monitored and/or forced to leave the country.

Yet, there have been voices in the government who recognize that Pakistan does not have the institutional capacity to return all Afghans to Afghanistan. They are supported by UNHCR in their attempt to push for means to regularize the status of Afghans living in Pakistan (e.g. visa and schemes for legal residency).


Quick Facts

  • In 2006 and 2007, CCAR/SAFRON and UNCHR rolled out a computerised biometric identity (ID) card scheme for Afghan refugees (the Afghan Citizen Proof of Registration Card), which has been used to facilitate Assistant Voluntary Return.*
  • In 2017, the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) started a registration and identity card scheme for undocumented Afghans, which is also geared toward supporting repatriation programmes.**
  • Afghans who return to Afghanistan are de-registered from Pakistan via their ID cards at encashment centres in Afghanistan where they are given some monetary compensation.
  • Since the mid-2000s, human rights groups have repeatedly condemned Pakistan’s routine harassment of Afghans.
  • Visa and residency schemes for Afghans have started to be rolled out in 2017-2018.
* S. Alimia. 2018. ‘Performing the Afghanistan-Pakistan Border through Refugee ID Cards’. Geopolitics.
** S. Khan. 2017. ‘Afghans Dream of Stepping out of the Shadows with Pakistan ID Scheme’. UNHCR. 21 July. Available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/5975bc8b4.html (accessed: 21-8-2018).


S. Alimia (forthcoming). Afghan Refugees in Pakistan. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Afghanistan was never formally colonised by the British Empire, but held the status of a British protectorate until 1923.
Alimia. Afghan Refugees in Pakistan.
Government of Afghanistan. 1979. Census of Afghanistan. Kabul. LSE Archive.
Government of Pakistan. 1951. Citizenship Act of Pakistan, 1951. Available at: http://www.refworld.org/pdfid/3ae6b4ffa.pdf (accessed: 21-8-2018).
CCAR and SAFRON. 2010.‘Afghan Management and Repatriation Strategy’. Islamabad; CCAR and SAFRON. 2015. ‘Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees (SSAR, phase II 2015-2017)’. Islamabad (in conjunction with the government of Afghanistan and UNHCR).
Human Rights Watch. 2017. ‘Pakistan Coercion, UN Complicity: The Mass Forced Return of Afghan Refugees’. Islamabad.
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