In Balochistan, the presence of Afghans is a hotly debated issue. In Quetta, I interviewed Usman Kakar, PkMAP’s senator and provincial president; Ghulam Nabi Marri, BNP-M’s general secretary Quetta district and member party’s central media committee, and Abdul Khaliq Hazara, chairman HDP, on the stances of their parties on the presence of Afghans in Balochistan and their tentative repatriation by the end of December. Lack of information on the exact number and character of Afghans’ stay informs nationalistic rhetoric as much as the craving for, or the denial of, vote bank from Afghan constituencies, all under the garb of nationalism.
Speaking critically of anti-migration feelings towards Afghans, Kakar was all accommodating to their living in Balochistan. “The 320,000 Afghans populate Afghan Watan [here Pashtun populated areas in Balochistan]. Why should it concern the Baloch? If Afghans inhabit Baloch areas, it is up to Baloch how they treat them. If Afghan kadwal (migrants) want to move, by their free will, to any part of the Pashtun Watan (homeland) either this side [Pashtun populated areas of Balochistan] or that [Afghanistan] they can; but not by coercion”, Kakar jibed.
Marri was highly critical of the protracted stay of Afghan migrants in Balochistan. “Balochistan is treated as orphanage where everyone is settled with impunity. The Afghan refugees in our province are used for nefarious purposes. We want their return to Afghanistan where the situation is now better than here. Balochistan is a province of local Baloch and Pashtuns, he remarked.”
Hazara was “in favour of the return of all Afghans including Hazaras to Afghanistan provided they are proven to be refugees as per the government authentic record.”
The exact number and status of Afghans in Balochistan are sticking points. By December 2001, more than 5 million Afghans were in Pakistan. According to UNHCR’s “Volrep and border monitoring monthly update” in March 2014, since March 2002 when UNHCR’s assisted voluntary repatriation operation began, a total of 3,807,719 Afghan refugees were repatriated to Afghanistan from Pakistan by March 31, 2014. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa accounted for 50.1 per cent of returnees followed by Balochistan 35.8 per cent, Sindh 7.4 per cent, Punjab 5.9 per cent and Islamabad 0.8 per cent.
According to UNHCR and government of Pakistan’s estimate quoted in “Census of Afghans in Pakistan 2005”, a total of 5,429,057 Afghans were repatriated to Afghanistan from 1988/89 down to March 2005. Of these some 2.4 million had returned home since March 2002. Of the 3,049,268 Afghans residing in Pakistan in 2005, Pashtuns numbered 2,485,120 (81.5 per cent) individuals, followed by Baloch 52,009 (1.7 per cent) and Hazaras 39,454 (1.3 per cent). Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan hosted 1878170 (61.6 per cent) and 769268 (25.2 per cent) individuals respectively. 48.1 percent of all Afghan resided in five districts in Pakistan: Peshawar (20.1 per cent); Quetta (11.1 per cent); Nowshera (7.6 per cent); Pishin; (5.1 per cent) and Karachi (4.3 per cent). The rest of 51.9 per cent lived in 120 districts and agencies/regions of Pakistan.
Of the 1.29 million (42.3 per cent) Afghans residing in camps and 1.75 million (57.7 per cent) living outside camps in Pakistan, Balochistan accounted for 231,960 individuals (18.0 per cent) of the camp population with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa home to 1,040,223 (80.6 per cent) individuals. Of Afghans living outside camps, whereas Balochistan hosted 537,308 (30.5 per cent) Afghans, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa accommodated 837,947 (47.6 per cent) of the rest.
Therefore, there were a total of 769268 Afghans in Balochistan as per “Census of Afghans in Pakistan 2005.” The number of Afghans must be lesser in Balochistan after ten years when according to UNHCR’s figure, 1527149 Afghans have repatriated from Pakistan since 2005 down to 2014. As of 2015, Pakistan shelters about 1.5 million registered Afghans. Estimates suggest that there are close to 1 million unregistered Afghans in the country.
Also read: Torn between here and “home”
After all, a definitive answer as to the exact number of Afghans in Balochistan is sketchy. Currently, a legal case, challenging the local status of several allegedly Afghan families in Zhob, being keenly pursued by an Islamabad-based lawyer— himself from Zhob — gives a glimpse into the involvement of the personnel of the officialdom in the issuance of illegal domiciles and NICs.
A 2009 combined study by Altai Consulting and UNHCR, entitled “Study on cross border population movement between Afghanistan and Pakistan” noted that “today, the majority of Afghans travelling to and from Pakistan are temporary migrants”. On an average day in September 2008, 40,013 single men crossed the border at Torkham compared to 8,930 individuals in family groups. Another 20,993 single men crossed the border at Spin Boldak compared to 2,821 individuals in family groups.
Of the 2,023 exclusively-men survey carried out at two border crossings — Torkham (1005 males) and Spin Boldak (1,018 males) — in September and November 2008, 84.1 per cent of the travelers were Pashtun, 8.1 per cent Tajik, 3.7 per cent Hazara, 2.6 per cent Uzbek, and 1.4 per cent Turkmen or from another ethnicity. 71.9 per cent of them lived in Afghanistan. The rest 28.1 per cent who lived in Pakistan, 18.0 per cent lived in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and 8.6 in Balochistan.
Of province and city of destination in Pakistan, 46.9 per cent were destined towards Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (Peshawar: 25.4 per cent) and 44.4 per cent Balochistan (Quetta: 27.2 per cent). Of the duration of stay in Pakistan, 81.3 per cent of all travelers indicated travelling between Pakistan and Afghanistan on a regular basis. The highest number, 35.9 per cent, would cross the border every three months while 32.5 per cent would do so once a year.
As far timing of migration, 54.0 per cent mentioned moving to Pakistan usually in the winter time and 50.2 per cent would return back to Afghanistan in the summer time. When asked for the reason to travelling forth and back from Pakistan, only 0.7 respondents mentioned conflict: employment (28.4 per cent), going home (20.0 per cent), visiting family and friends (20.0 per cent), medical purposes (18.8 per cent), trade (4.5 per cent), education (3.2 per cent), accompanying relatives (2.6 per cent), and others (1.8 per cent).
Nevertheless, 19.7 per cent of the interviewees declared to be permanently residing in Pakistan, with frequent travels back to Afghanistan. Lonely travelers, 75.3 per cent of Afghans travelled without their family with majority (52.3) citing their brief stays. Mainly unregulated journey, 81.2 per cent of respondents travelled without any travel papers: 3.7 per cent owned passport, a Pakistani ID (3.3 per cent), an Afghan ID (5.1 per cent), or variety of immigration cards (6.6 per cent). Of the 82.0 per cent of respondents who had previously resided or worked in Pakistan, 73.4 per cent of them were living in Pakistan without any legal status.
Afghans’ presence in Balochistan is a deeply politicised issue between the Baloch and Pashtun nationalists. Though a latest census of Afghans is needed desperately, it will not resolve nationalists’ squabbling there. For the federal government, the need is to evolve a consensus among all political parties, especially nationalist ones, while dealing with the issue of Afghan migrants in Balochistan.
An earlier version of the article incorrectly mentioned that there are 400,000 Afghans in the province. The error is regretted.