Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 31 March 2020

Pakistan hailed for providing Afghan refugees with decades-long sanctuary

But uncertainty reigns over long-term fate of 1.5 million displaced as Afghan peace process stutters on

A two-day conference highlighting Pakistan's role hosting millions of Afghan refugees for decades has been a diplomatic coup for a nation trying to cleanse its reputation after years of distrust, analysts said.

The event in Islamabad and Lahore has seen Pakistan praised by the UN as an example to the rest of the world for taking in Afghans fleeing 40 years of devastating conflict in their homeland.

Yet while the conference has highlighted efforts that Pakistan complains are ignored by its critics, uncertainty over the fate of Afghans living in the country remains bound up in a years-long peace process for Afghanistan.

The high-profile event praising Pakistan took place as the international community leans on the country to bring its influence to bear on Taliban militants and encourage them to strike a deal with America and begin talks with Afghan leaders.

Pakistan was called "a reliable and generous partner" for hosting millions of Afghans, with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres saying Islamabad had received little help.

"Pakistan is today the world's second largest host of refugees," Mr Guterres said at the start of the event on Monday.

“Despite its own challenges, Pakistan has sheltered and protected Afghan refugees with limited support from the international community."

Refugees began flowing into Pakistan after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and continued to arrive during the civil war that followed, then during the Taliban regime.

At the height of the Soviet occupation, about 5 million Afghans fled to Pakistan to escape bombing raids and brutality.

More than 1.5 million still live as refugees in Pakistan, feeling abandoned by their government, increasingly unwelcome in their reluctant host country and ignored by the UN.

Their fate has at times been a political football. Pakistan has expressed frustration that its hospitality is being exploited while Kabul says it is using the prospect of repatriating millions of refugees as a threat.

“We hear so often about the troubles that Afghan refugees face in Pakistan,” said Michael Kugelman, a deputy director at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in the US.

“But we hear a lot less about how Islamabad has hosted so many Afghan refugees for such a long time."

The conference is likely to serve as a boost to Islamabad’s reputation overseas, Mr Kugelman said.

“The big takeaway is that it represents a diplomatic coup for Islamabad," he said.

"For the UN Secretary General to come to Pakistan and praise the country for its compassion and hospitality for refugees, as well as make a call for dialogue on Kashmir, that's about as good as it gets for Pakistan,” he said.

Pakistan has a major image problem overseas and that's why it's always hoping the world will say nice things about it.”

Not all were convinced. Amrullah Saleh, who on Tuesday became Afghanistan's vice president, accused Pakistan of using the refugees issue to distract from claims that it gives safe haven to the Taliban.

“We are more eager than Pakistan to repatriate our fellow Afghans wrongly labelled as refugees back to Afghanistan," Mr Saleh said.

"Most of them are integrated in the Pakistani economy and play a big role, such as carpet weavers. Pakistan hides behind refugees to confuse us on terror sanctuaries."

While a deal between the Taliban and America setting up a US troop withdrawal and peace talks with the Afghan government raises the possibility of a better situation in Afghanistan, refugees are unlikely to hurry back.

Peace initiatives have ended in dashed hopes before.

"I think this time around, the people who are still left outside will be very cautious in their judgment,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi told AP.

“They would want to have guarantees that it can be sustainable."

Updated: February 19, 2020 01:10 AM

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