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

The Afghan Population in Pakistan

Since the 1970s, Pakistan has hosted over eight million Afghans. Many of them have returned to Afghanistan or migrated on to other countries. From 2002 to 2018 4.3 million registered refugees have repatriated to Afghanistan. The Afghan population in Pakistan has fluctuated because of different migration waves and natural population growth rates. Today, there are three million Afghans in Pakistan: 1.4 million are refugees registered with the government of Pakistan and UNHCR (“Afghan refugees”); 1,0-1.5 million are undocumented Afghans.

A 2011 survey of refugees and undocumented Afghans highlights that 74 percent of all Afghans living in Pakistan were born in the country and are, sociologically speaking, Pakistani. [8]

Of the 1.4 million Afghan refugees currently living in Pakistan 56 percent are male, 44 are female. [9] Children make up 50 percent of the Pakistan-based Afghan population. Overall, 72 percent of Afghans residing in Pakistan are women and children.

85 percent of the 1.4 million registered Afghans in Pakistan are of Pashtun origin, an ethno-linguistic group that is also found in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, (former) FATA region, and the province of Balochistan. Other major Afghan ethnic groups in Pakistan include Tajiks (six percent), Uzbeks (three percent), Turkmens (one percent), and Hazaras (two percent). [10]

32 percent of registered Afghans in Pakistan live in refugee camps; 68 percent reside outside these camps, most of them in urban areas. [11] In the cities, they often live in informal settlements and are confronted with limited access to basic goods and security. Yet, Afghans living in refugee camps are not necessarily better off. Many have suffered from reduced international funding and the closure of camps.

The Afghan population is not spread evenly across Pakistan, but concentrated in certain areas or provinces. Large shares of registered Afghan refugees can be found in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (58 percent), Balochistan (23 percent), and Punjab (12 percent); smaller shares in Sindh (five percent), Islamabad and the Capital Territories (two percent), FATA (one percent) as well as Pakistan Administered Kashmir (0.3 percent). An educated guess would place similar ratios of undocumented Afghans across Pakistan’s provinces.

Most registered and undocumented Afghans fall into the low-income section of the labour market and are employed in daily wage labour, as rag pickers, or handicraft production. Disproportionate numbers of Afghans particularly of those who are undocumented, find themselves in bonded labour in Pakistan’s clay brick production. Smaller numbers of Afghans are employed as teachers, operate small businesses, and/or engage in transregional trade.

A majority of Afghans in Pakistan are from low-income households, a status that is largely inherited from the time of their movement into Pakistan. Therefore, large numbers of Afghans have poor access to employment and basic rights such as access to safe drinking water, healthcare, education, and basic utilities.

Registered Afghan refugees are allowed to attend public and private Pakistani schools, colleges, and universities. There are also Afghan primary and high schools overseen by the Afghan consulate in Pakistan that teach a syllabus compatible with the education system in Afghanistan.

Since undocumented Afghans have a precarious legal status, many of them end up reliant on the informal economy for access to work, healthcare, education, housing, and utilities.

Current Living Conditions in Pakistan

Pakistan’s performance on various global indices – be it with regard to its economic power, political stability, gender equality, or human development – is weak. Some 45.6 percent of the population are in multidimensional poverty whilst 26.5 percent are in severe multidimensional poverty. [12] The country is also marked by structural inequalities and discriminations that impact different geographic regions, ethnicities, religious minorities, women, and transgender persons. Pakistan’s overall position is shaped by a number of long-, medium-, and short-term factors which include the domination of the military in governance, which sucks up most of the country’s resources, and a concentration of political power in urban Punjab.

Patriarchy is an ongoing problem in the country. In 2018 Pakistan's female literacy rate stood at 45 percent, whereas the male literacy rate was 69 percent. Violence against women, through so-called honour killings, acid attacks, domestic violence, and forced marriages is not uncommon. These are issues that also impact Afghan women in Pakistan, but fail to get noticed as the state and/or international organizations focus their concerns on refugee repatriation. In addition, Pakistani political and community organisations for women often have less access to migrant women and/or do not focus on these groups as they are not potential vote banks.

Violence against ethnic groups is another problem. Shia Muslims are particularly vulnerable to sectarian violence from Sunni militant groups, which also target Sufi shrines, Christians, and other minorities, through bombings and target killings. Afghan Hazaras are particularly vulnerable as they appear as a physically distinct ethnic group and are thereby easy to identify. From 2014 to 2018 it is estimated that in Quetta alone 509 Hazaras were killed and 627 injured in various targeted killings. [13]

Instability and inequalities in Pakistan produce high numbers of Pakistani asylum seekers, undocumented migrants, and internally displaced persons. This, in turn, has a significant impact on Afghans living in Pakistan. As non-citizens they are considered a lower priority than Pakistanis moving inside the country or leaving it, and are in fact often overlooked and/or seen as a burden on an already overstretched state.


Quick Facts

  • Pakistan has large numbers of IDPs because of poorly managed ecological disasters, such as the 2010 nationwide floods that displaced over 19 million persons, and the impact of the War on Terror, which displaced over five million persons.
  • It is estimated that some 67,000 Pakistanis (mainly Pashtuns) have been killed in the War on Terror by military and militant violence and U.S.-based drone strikes.*
  • Terrorist bombings are commonplace.
  • Sectarian violence and the targeted killings and persecution of minorities, including Christians, Ahmadiyya Muslims, and Shias, are the order of the day.
* 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).

An overarching theme of the Afghan experience in Pakistan since the 2000s has been one of being made scapegoats for terrorist violence, criminality, and being a strain on government resources, which is intersected with class-based discriminations against the poor in general. Additionally, since the early 2000s, Afghans face consistent police harassment, mass and individual arrests, and deportations. [14]


Sound Bite

“I have been hit and beaten by the police who have told me I should return to Afghanistan. I have been arrested without charge. My family worries for me every day. But Pakistan is my home. I was born here. I have lived here all my life. How can I go to Afghanistan? We have never lived there."
Author's interview with an Afghan resident of Karachi, 2016.
In general, social relations between Afghans and Pakistanis have, however, not been antagonistic. Many Afghans find themselves living in conditions similar to those of Pakistani citizens; often, Afghans live next door to Pakistanis. Given that most Afghans have been living in Pakistan since the 1970s, many have intermarried with Pakistanis, which is especially notable for Pashtuns and Hazaras. As numerous Pakistani citizens have become displaced persons within Pakistan, many Afghans generously opened up their own homes to support them; for example, in the context of the 2010 national floods and in the cases of displacements of residents of FATA in the War on Terror.

An Uncertain Outlook

Geopolitical pressures to manage the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and a deterioration of the Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship in the Global War on Terror have mounted pressure on Afghans to leave Pakistan. Many Afghans have returned to Afghanistan or are living transnationally, with families being divided and distributed across countries. Some have moved on to other countries. Yet, sizeable numbers of Afghans remain in Pakistan, a country that has been home for over 40 years and/or their place of birth. Many Afghans are an active part of the social and economic life in Pakistan. Given ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, transnational mobility and migration out of Afghanistan continues to serve as a means of survival and to improve people's lives. All of these factors make it seem unlikely that Pakistan will ever be able to remove all registered and undocumented Afghans from Pakistan (forcibly or voluntarily). Therefore, hopes are that Pakistan will allow for the regularization of Afghans in the country to end the precarious state of uncertainty many of them are living in.


SAFRON, CCAR, and UNHCR. 2012. ‘Population Profiling, Verification and Response Survey of Afghans in Pakistan.’ Islamabad, p. 12.
SAFRON, CCAR, and UNHCR. 2012. ‘Population Profiling, Verification and Response Survey of Afghans in Pakistan.’ Islamabad, p. 12.
UNHCR. 2017. ‘Pakistan: Refugee Update. As of 31st December 2017’.
UNDP. 2017. ‘National Human Development, Report 2017: Unleashing the Potential of a Young Pakistan’. Islamabad. Available at: http://www.pk.undp.org/content/dam/pakistan/docs/HDR/PK-NHDR.pdf (accessed: 21-8-2018).
Human Rights Watch. 2018. ‘Pakistan’s Hazara Community Under Attack. Militant Killings of Besieged Shia Muslims Escalate’. 20 April. Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/04/30/pakistans-hazara-community-under-attack (accessed: 21-8-2018).
UNHCR. ‘Pakistan: Refugee Update. As of 31st December 2017’.
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