The number of people living outside their country of birth is more than 250 million. Over 10 per cent of these are refugees, distinct from migrants in that they are fleeing war or persecution, and by international law cannot be forcibly returned to their home countries. Around 1.4 million of these, primarily Afghans, reside in Pakistan (the overall number of Afghans in Pakistan is closer to 3 million).
Recently, acknowledging the scale of global displacement, the majority of UN member states adopted a global compact for migration. The pact aims to improve global governance on migration-related issues, including promoting legal migration, providing basic services, better integrating new arrivals, tackling human trafficking and coordinating how to send migrants home.
Some members — the US and a clutch of Eastern European countries — have pulled out of the pact on the basis that it undermines national sovereignty, ostensibly because it dictates how countries should control their borders. This complaint is an unfounded grumble by administrations that have generated political traction through fear-mongering about a migrant influx. The pact, which is non-binding, primarily aims to limit the suffering of the displaced resulting from unnecessary horrors such as child separation.
That the pact has generated controversy is absurd, particularly in the context of the refugee crisis. Amnesty International estimates that 85 per cent of refugees are hosted by developing countries — the top slots are held by Turkey, Jordan, Pakistan and Lebanon. And many of these, such as the Afghans in Pakistan and the Palestinians in Jordan, are protracted refugees — in the former case, going on to four decades. That the world must question the need for border crossings to be humane, safe and orderly shows how toxic global discourse on this issue has become.
Pakistan’s experience shows that challenges related to migration continue through the long-term: distinguishing between migrants and refugees; deciding whether to isolate or integrate them; determining the appropriate amount of service delivery.
For many years, Pakistan prided itself on hosting the world’s largest refugee population. But then the issue became hijacked by securitised narratives. In political discourse, the Afghan population has been criminalised and made to bear disproportionate blame for domestic militancy.