Resettlement Pattern: The Afghan Refugees in Pakistan


Development and modernization in Afghanistan, unlike that in developing civil societies, did not generate from the bottom but was imposed from above by a bureaucratic elite that tried to transform the country's precapitalist social formation overnight without creating a solid base to support it. The ruling class could not mobilize civilians to take an active part in carrying out the reforms.

Lacking popular support and the active consent of civil society, the Afghan ruling class lost its consensus-i.e., it was no longer a "leading" but only a "dominant" influence, exercising coercive force alone. As a result, the stage of development and the building of a hegemonic project from above culminated in a crisis of authority. Bereft of social hegemony, the dominant class was reduced to mere bureaucratic functionaries with no creative ideology binding them together in a legitimate social mandate.

Historical Background

The development strategy adopted by the dominant class benefited only a small section of the population; living conditions of the overwhelming majority of the Afghan people remained unchanged. A social revolution loomed on the horizon as various social classes became more dissatisfied. The struggle of social classes and the necessity for political change was manifested in the struggle among various class factions within the dominant class in the Afghan bureaucracy. In the course of this struggle. President Mohammad Daoud, who had ruled the country since July 1973, was overthrown in a coup in April 1978 and Afghanistan was declared a democratic republic.

The pro-Soviet regime in power in Kabul tried to transform the country's socioeconomic structure by issuing decrees from above without the active participation of the peasantry, white collar workers and other social strata. To achieve this, the state resorted to bureaucratic measures, a strategy of social development that backfired. Opposition to the regime in Afghanistan developed a few months after the inception of the regime in Kabul. The regime in Kabul was not in a position to consolidate its influence across the country and was on the verge of collapse when the USSR decided to send its troops to "defend" the client state in Afghanistan in December 1979.

Afghans began fleeing their homeland soon after the pro-Soviet coup in April 1978. Among the first refugees were members of the royal family and their associates, who went to Pakistan; from there, some went on the western European countries and to North America. More and more refugees poured into Pakistan when the regime in Kabul began to arrest and prosecute thousands of suspected opposition supporters. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in December 1979 and the continuation of the war sent more waves of refugees to seek shelter outside the country, mainly in Pakistan, Iran, the Middle East and western European countries.

According to United Nations statistics, there are 5 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, Iran and elsewhere and an additional one million internal refugees who fled the countryside to Kabul and other major cities for security reasons. Approximately one-third of Afghanistan's pre-war population of 15 million has been uprooted and scattered; they represent one-half of the world's estimated refugee population.

The Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan before and after the invasion consistently denied the presence of Afghan refugees in the neighboring countries. Regarding the influx of Afghan refugees to Pakistan, President Babrak Karmal told a BBC correspondent during an interview that first, an important point: who has taken a census of these two or two and a half million people? These figures are entirely incorrect. But I would like to point out to you that throughout history two and a half and even three million Afghan nomads have been traveling to and from Afghanistan, previously to India, and presently to Pakistan. Likewise, there are Pushtun families having one brother living on this side and another brother on the other side, and they are traveling freely between the two countries.

According to available statistics, 2.7 million registered Afghan refugees are living in 380 camps in Pakistan, while several hundred thousand more are unregistered and live on their own resources. The overwhelming majority of Afghan refugees (75 percent) live in Pakistan's northwest frontier, 20 percent live in Baluchistan and 4 percent live in Punjab Province.

Afghan Refugees in Iran

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the latest official number of Afghan refugees in the Islamic Republic of Iran is estimated to be between 2 and 2.25 million (700,000 in Khorasan, 250,000 in Sistan-Baluchistan, 50,000 in Kerman, approximately 200,000 to 300,000 in Tehran, 250,000 in Mashbad and the rest in nine other provinces). The refugee population includes an estimated 200,000 Afghans who had settled in Iran permanently prior to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and some 400,000 who were working in Iran at the time as seasonal laborers, tradesmen and nomads. Most Afghan refugees work in various projects in Iran. Less than 50,000 Afghan refugees were accommodated in camps and other quarantine and reception centers. A large number of Shiite Afghan refugees have settled in Khorasan and Mashbad provinces.

Afghan refugees in Iran work in various construction projects, agriculture, small shops and cottage industries. The condition of Afghan refugees is below decent living standard. According to the UNHCR, "Afghan refugees who work on constructions, agricultural projects, or employed to install natural gas pipelines live more or less on the site itself...On average the refugee workers earn 45,000 rials [$500] per month" (1985a:28)-barely enough to make ends meet considering the skyrocketing of prices in Iran.

In general, the condition of refugees is deteriorating in Iran because of the Iran-Iraq War. The decline in oil revenues, which affected the course of economic development in Iran, also exerted its impact on job opportunities for Afghan refugees. As a result, Afghan refugees compete with the local population for employment, resulting in periodic clashes between the two groups. To reduce social friction and to improve the situation, the government of Iran introduced a law in 1985 restricting the number of Afghan refugees to be employed in Iran as well as places where they may choose to live. The government of Iran also outlawed the integration of Afghan refugees into local population by not permitting Afghans to marry Iranians.

In addition to these measures, "refugees in Iran are under tight government control and since 1983, have been compelled to carry special identification cards. Tehran is also said to have spent huge sums of money to spread its brand of radical Islam among the refugees". Some Afghan refugees have been sent to the war front to fight Iraqi soldiers. The government in Iran claims that it provides opportunities for Afghan refugees to enrich their military training and experiences prior to going to participate in the Jihad in Afghanistan. A refugee who opposes such a policy always risks being deported to Afghanistan on alleged charges of being a Soviet agent.

Ethnic Distribution of Refugees in Pakistan

Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic nation, with a structure composed of various ethnolinguistic groups, such as Pushtun, Uzbek, Turkman, Tadjik, Hazara, Baluch and Kirghiz. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the continuation of eight years of war displaced almost all the country's indigenous groups.

A major ethnic group among Afghan refugees is the Pushtuns, originating from several southeastern provinces of Afghanistan. At the beginning of the armed struggle against the Soviet-backed regime of President Noor Mohammad Taraki in 1978, a great number of Pushtuns from these regions were forced to leave their homes because their houses had been bombed and their properties destroyed. They crossed the Durand Line (the line drawn in 1893 by the British colonial government of India that separates Pushtuns and Baluchis between Afghanistan and Pakistan) and settled in several areas in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan, where they have relatives and distant kinfolk. They all share the same language, Pushtu. The government of Pakistan provided lodging and a limited amount of assistance to the refugees. As the number of refugees increased in subsequent years, the Pakistani government appealed for international assistance and relocated refugees away from the border areas in Kurram and North Waziristan in the NWFP.

The Hazara and Baluch refugees are mainly concentrated in Quetta, capital of Baluchistan Province of Pakistan. A great number of the Hazara ethnic group migrated to Pakistan at the beginning of the twentieth century when the Hazara armed struggle for autonomy was crushed by the government. After their defeat, a large number of the Hazara were enslaved, their land granted to Pushtun nomads. A great number of them migrated to Pakistan. Following the Soviet invasion, another wave of Hazara refugees poured into Quetta, Baluchistan, where they have distant relatives and kin. All speak Hazaragi, a dialect of the Persian language. Many other Hazara, who had no relatives in Pakistan, went to Iran because of their Shiite religious orientation.

Afghan Baluch refugees also settled in Quetta following the Soviet invasion where, like the Hazara, they have relatives and kinfolk. They are mainly Sunni in religious belief. A great number of those refugees who do not have relatives and are poor live in camps in Quetta. Most refugees get a limited amount of food and their rations consist of flour, tea and sugar. This situation compels children and the elderly to work in coal mines and construction projects in Baluchistan far below the wage level of a local Pakistani worker.

The other major Afghan ethnic refugee groups are Uzbek, Tadjiks and Turkmen from the northern provinces of Afghanistan. Unlike Pushtuns and Hazaras, these groups have no ethnic kinfolk in Pakistan. They speak their own languages (except the Tadjiks, who speak Persian). Almost 18,500 Uzbek and Tadjik refugees live in 320 villages established for them in Karachi, the capital of Sind Province of Pakistan. Getting employment in Karachi is difficult because refugees cannot speak the languages of Urdu or Sindhi.

Another group of Afghan refugees is the Kirghiz people from the Pamir district and Badakshan Province of Afghanistan. They are Tadjiks and Ismaili in their religious beliefs. They went to Gilgit because a great number of Pakistanis in Gilgit belong to the same religious sect. Since these refugees are not settled in established refugee camps in the NWFP, Quetta or Karachi, they are not entitled to food stamps. They are poor and cannot afford to get medical treatment. They cope with various diseases such as malaria, hepatitis and intestinal malfunctions. The government of Turkey granted refugee status to approximately 4,000-5,000 Kirghiz and other Turkie-speaking people in August 1982.

Classification of Afghan Refugees

Afghan refugees who settled in various areas in Pakistan can be classified into the following economic categories:

Landlords and Businessmen

This group of Afghan refugees constitutes a small section of the refugee population in Pakistan. They fled Afghanistan after the 1978 pro-Soviet coup and subsequent Soviet invasion, bringing their cattle, personal belongings, vehicles and money. According to the UNHCR's report, "a large number of the coloured buses, painted trucks and auto-rickshaws that whiz in and out of traffic and along the national motorways are registered with this group of refugees". In addition to this group, a number of Afghan refugees, comprised of all ethnic groups, live in Peshawar. They work as mechanics, welders, painters and apprentices, some repairing vehicles and others owning businesses ranging from car dealerships to transport services and video shops. The concentration of these refugees and wealthy Afghans has turned the city of Peshawar into a mini-Kabul.

The well-to-do Afghan refugees in Pakistan rented or bought fine suburban houses not only in Peshawar but also in Islamabad, Karachi and other Pakistani cities. With the consolidation of an Islamic state in Iran and Islamization of the state apparatuses in Pakistan, this group of Afghan refugees saw no other option but to support the policies of the right-wing Afghan nationalists and Islamic parties. When the Soviet-backed government closed the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, a small number of drug dealers and smugglers who used to operate (trade) between the two countries could no longer continue their business and protect their interest-so they, too, supported Islamic parties.


A large number of Afghan refugees in Pakistan are intellectuals who left the country both before and after the Soviet invasion. A great number of these refugees espoused Afghan nationalism and various trends of left radicalism and believed in a secular state in the aftermath of Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The Afghan Islamic parties in collaboration with the government of Pakistan limited the activities of these intellectuals among the Afghan refugees. Disgruntled with the situation in Pakistan, some of these refugees emigrated to India and several West European countries. The United States also granted political asylum to high-ranking Afghan officials and pro-US Afghan bureaucrats. It also admitted refugee status to Afghans who either previously had studied in the US, worked in the US or had immediate relatives residing in the US. According to available statistics, there are 7,106 Afghan refugees in the US.

Peasants and Farmers

The overwhelming majority of Afghan refugees are peasants and farmers who lost their houses and properties during the war in Afghanistan and fled to Pakistan. They are mainly concentrated in refugee camps in Quetta and NFWP provinces of Pakistan. They are illiterate and do not know any other skills but farming. Since land is not available to refugees to work on, they are forced to live in refugee camps and depend on food stamps.

Adaptation Problems

In general, Afghan refugees no longer enjoy the relative degree of freedom of movement they enjoyed in their homeland. They have been settled in various refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan. Their movement has been restricted by the governments of host countries. Afghan women who once worked outside their homes without wearing veils are now forced to wear veils, not only to shield themselves against strangers, but also to comply with the Islamization strategy of development in the neighboring countries. This situation has caused refugees to refuse to use some of the aid items provided by international organizations, such as Western dress and canned food. Refugees are not treated in a manner equal to local citizens before the law. If a dispute arises between a refugee and a local, the governments often blame the refugee.

Skilled and semiskilled refugees work as laborers in various development projects in Pakistan and compete with their Pakistani counterparts. They are forced to accept wages lower than ordinary Pakistani laborers. For example, an Afghan construction worker earns 15 rupees ($1.25) compared to 20 rupees by a Pakistani laborer. However, more of them are hired because of the lower pay. Many laborers in Pakistan are beginning to resent the presence of Afghan refugees in their country; they increasingly blame Afghans for higher rents, lower wages and increased crime rates. According to an Afghan refugee, Pakistani resentment toward Afghan refugees is always present and "it corresponds to the bomb blasts. No matter where they happen, we suffer the effects. I went to Lahore shortly after the December riots in Karachi and was refused entry into several hotels. They told me it was because I am Afghan".

The majority of Afghan refugees (75 percent) are women, children under age 15 and old men. In order to register for international aid, each refugee must submit an ID card identifying him or her as a member of either Islamic party. Officials in charge of ration distribution among refugees get rich by appropriating the bulk of the refugee aid to themselves while the refugees barely survive in camps. Corruption is so pervasive that in Baluchistan, a high official in charge of transport of refugee goods was court-martialed. Others at the highest level of responsibility have resigned rather than be brought up on charges. Despite the fact that these efforts have been widely publicized, outsiders persist in referring to the provincial administrative complexes as houses of "thieves". Afghan refugee children in Pakistan have no educational opportunities. Most young Afghans have no option but to enter into military training. The average Afghan refugee family cannot afford to give their children a basic education. Girls' education is considered to be anathema to the religious institution; those who support equal education for boys and girls are branded as "traitors" and "communists" by the Islamic parties and conservative tribal heads of the refugees in Pakistan. The pre-coup Afghan women who enrolled or graduated from various educational institutions and occupied positions in Afghanistan's administration now face the ire of ultraconservative religious vigilantes who seek to curtail the activities of women outside the home.

The majority of the anti-Soviet insurgents who battle the Soviet forces in Afghanistan are peasants, farmers and laborers. Although they are Muslim, they don't articulate the Islamic aspect of the war, but instead stress Afghan nationalism. However, leaders of the Islamic parties (in charge of arms and munitions in Pakistan) who have established themselves as representatives of the Afghan people with the aid of Western countries try to identify the war in Afghanistan as a religious war - a war between "communism" and Islam.

If the situation continues like this and children are deprived of educational opportunities, these young children in the long run will neither be able to contribute to their community-in-exile nor will they be able to contribute to the reconstruction of Afghanistan in the post-Soviet withdrawal period.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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