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Pakistan slum township sees influx of people fleeing from Taliban rule in Afghanistan

There are around 2.8 million documented and undocumented Afghan refugees in Pakistan, making it the world's second-largest refugee population after Syrians in Turkey.

By: PTI | Karachi |
August 21, 2021 12:03:20 pm
Pakistani army soldier stands guard while Afghan people enter into Pakistan through a border crossing point, in Chaman, Pakistan. (AP Photo/File)

On the outskirts of Pakistan’s populous metropolitan city of Karachi is nestled a slum township, which in recent days is seeing an influx of Afghan families fleeing from the Taliban rule in the northern Kunduz province in conflict-ridden Afghanistan.

Located on the northern outskirts, just off the super highway outside Karachi, the Afghan basti (slum township), which is made up of concrete and mud houses and even has families residing in tarpaulin tents, is seeing more displaced Afghan families reaching here since the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan and also took over Kabul.

“We are not surprised and in the last two weeks we have some 500-600 families, which means around 4,000 to 5,000 people including women and children, joining us in the Basti,” said Haji Abdullah, an elderly Afghan who has been living in Karachi for the last 25 years.

“These families have nowhere else to go and mostly belong to different parts of Kunduz and other provinces where the Taliban have taken control. They have come through the smuggling routes in the border areas of Balochistan,” he said.

Omar Tajik, who reached the Afghan basti some five days back with his family of seven said people are fed up with what is happening in Afghanistan.

“There is no hope for us. It doesn’t matter whether we have Hamid Karzai, Ashraf Ghani or the Taliban. We have not lived a peaceful and prosperous life since the Russian invasion in 1979,” said the 50-year old.

Some 200,000 Afghans live in the slum township, while the southern city of Karachi is also home to some 500,000 Afghan refugees who mostly work in the city as labourers or run their own small shops and businesses in Pashtun dominated areas.

Many of these Afghans are also well off and run cloth, construction and furniture businesses in upscale areas of Karachi and also reside there in rented houses and apartments.

The Afghans in the township mostly speak Pashtun or Tajik languages, while some also converse in the traditional Dari language.

One can see them sitting together and chatting at small tea shops and in the markets in groups. The main topic of discussion these days is the manner in which the US withdrew its troops from Afghanistan, leaving the Taliban free to take over the country and whether the heavily armed radical Islamist group can bring peace to their country.

“I don’t understand what these Americans have done. For 20 years they fight against the Taliban and try to rule us through their hand-picked governments. Now when things started looking better, they just deserted us and left us at the mercy of the Talibans,” lamented Hafza Bibi, an elderly woman wearing a burqa and sitting on the ground with other women who just reached the Balkh province.

She recalls how the Taliban threw bombs into houses and how they escaped the fighting between Taliban and Afghan forces. ?We were afraid for our lives and didn’t know what was going to happen so we took whatever belongings we could gather and fled on foot,? she said, as tears rolled down her cheeks.

“Only God knows whether I will be able to return to my motherland again,” she said.

Many of the Afghans this correspondent encountered in Karachi and the slum township had the same question: why did the Americans abandon the people at the mercy of the Taliban? They were also uncertain of what was going to happen in their motherland.

It is the uncertain situation in Afghanistan for the last 20 or more years which has stopped thousands of Afghan refugees in Pakistan from returning home and instead preferring to live in refugee camps.

There are around 2.8 million documented and undocumented Afghan refugees in Pakistan, making it the world’s second-largest refugee population after Syrians in Turkey.

Only around half of the refugees are registered, with the rest living without documents, mostly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces, which border war-torn Afghanistan.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 4.4 million refugees have been repatriated to Afghanistan since 2002, but many have returned to Pakistan due to ongoing violence, unemployment, and lack of education and medical facilities.

Hamza Gul, who came to Karachi from the central province of Parwan in 2001 after the US invasion, sees a civil war brewing in his country.

“Afghanistan has changed in the last 20 years and I don’t think the Taliban will be able to rule like they did the last time by force. Many Afghan youths are today educated and have political will, so there will be clashes,” he noted.

Saleem Khan, the commissioner for the Afghan Basti, said they were expecting more Afghan families as thousands are fleeing from the conflict in Afghanistan.

“We are doing whatever we can to accommodate them even if they come here illegally. Many of the families who have reached here already have relatives in Karachi,” he said.

The biggest concern for Khan is ensuring that the children and the youths living in the slum township have access to education and other skill development programmes.

Aiman Mustafa, who runs an NGO for street children, said the growing populace of Afghans in Karachi had led to many children working as scavengers, labourers, or resorting to criminal activities.

“What is concerning is that these Afghan youngsters can be used by criminal gangs for drug trafficking and also by some religious seminaries for militancy,” Mustafa said.

With just five secondary and primary schools and some 20 religious seminaries working in the area, a government official admitted that the future seems not so bright for the young Afghan refugees.

But Saleem Khan said the refugee children also have access to government schools across Pakistan, including those in Karachi, and the government is initiating many skill development and scholarship programmes for them.

“We know there is no chance of these families repatriating back to Afghanistan in the near future,” he added.

Some miles away from the Afghan township is another locality on the outskirts of Karachi known as Asif colony, which is also home to many Afghan families.

Many Afghan children and youths in this area who were born in Pakistan hardly speak the Dari or Pushtun languages and converse fluently in Urdu, the national language of Pakistan.

“This is the dilemma for us. We have been living in Pakistan since the last 30-35 years. Our children and youths who were born here basically have no identity to speak of. They have never seen Afghanistan and don’t know why there has been conflict in the country for so many years,” said Nabi Hasan, who has been living in the Afghan township with his extended family since 1995.

“We came here before the Taliban first took control of Afghanistan in 1996. Me and my father we all yearn to go back to our ancestral home in the northern Baghlan province. We would like to be buried in our homeland,” he said.

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