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The longer the war continues in Afghanistan the greater will be the rush of refugees

By Syed M. Aslam
Oct 22 - 28, 2001

Try, hard it may, it is impossible for Pakistan not to feel the sympathy and to remain indifferent to the human suffering in an already war-ravaged Afghanistan bearing the brunt of massive destruction in the wake of US bombings. It can hardly desist from offering solace and support to the Afghans already entered the country or are expected to enter it en masse.

This poses serious economic problems to Pakistan still trying to recover from years of financial indicipline and rampant corruption on the one hand and slowdown of industrial activities on the other for playing the role of frontline state in the US war against terrorism at present on the other.

As is, Pakistan already houses the three-fouth of 4 million Afghans who fled Afghanistan when the then USSR invaded it some 22 years ago and the infighting among various mujahideen groups after the humiliating defeat and withdrawal of the former super power. With the beginning of deadly US sorties on October 7 another 1.5 million Afghan refugees are trying to enter the country. Pakistan which has been housing an already large number of Afghan refugees have to absorb a greater number of them in the months to come, particularly if the war goes on for years as US President George W. Bush has stated.

Permanent fixture

The longer the war continues in Afghanistan the greater will be the rush of refugees to the Pakistani borders, which is the biggest the country have with any of its other neighbours. Since last two decades Afghans have become a permanent fixture of Pakistani landscape, particularly the urban centers like Karachi. The Afghan refugees have been blamed for serious law and order threat, a vision strengthened by their involvement in dacoities, gun running, drug pushing etc. On the positive side the now defunct civic agencies owe the young Afghan garbage collectors due appreciation for helping sort out an otherwise huge quantities of garbage remained unpicked by them throughout the city each single day.

During the Russian-Afghan war which lasted for a decade and finished with the withdrawal of the Soviet troops the foreign aid flowed free and thick. After that it dried down to a negligible level forcing Pakistan to care for the huge number of refugees from its own meager resources. With the start of attacks on Afghanistan and turning of Pakistan into a frontline state the US and allies have assured flow of humanitarian aid for the rufugees.

Last week the UK announced to offer 15 million Pounds to Afghan refugees. Similarly, Japanese Ambassador in Pakistan signed an agreement with the Country Director of World Food Programme in Pakistan to provide $ 4.2 million in food aid to the refugees. The question is: How far the donations go to feed a refugee population which is not only large but is feared to grow in near future amidst the prevalent indicators.

Influx of refugees

Some 8,000 Afghans managed to cross into Pakistan through the Chaman border in the Balochistan province within just four days last week. This means an average of 2,000 Afghans find their way into Pakistan each day which translates into some 750,000 refugees a year a number which is expected to increase in case of a prolonged war as the US President has indicated. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees claimed last week that at least 30,000 refugees have crossed over into Balochistan in the previous 30 days and a similar number have crossed into the North West Frontier Province during the same period, many of them illegally due to closure of checkposts even for humanitarian cases.

Let's convert the 15 million Pounds and the 4.2 million dollars, the monetary aid promised by the UK and Japan respectively, to better understand how far they would go to feed the large Afghan refugee population in Pakistan. The 15 million Pounds is equivalent of Rs 1,357 million and 4.2 million dollars equal Rs 262 million at the going currency exchange rate on October 17. The total package thus offer Rs 1,619 million, a amount enough to feed an expected 4.5 million refugees for just 12 days at a minimum possible cost of Rs 30 per day. Needless to say, while the financial assistance offered by the two staunch US allies look impressive in reality it is just enough to feed the refugees barely over 12 days.

Severe strain

In other words it is just not enough to cast a severe strain on the national economy in addition to the other socio-political and security problems it poses for the country. For a country reeling from an unemployment, inflation and increasing cost of living absorbing such a high influx of refugees poses all kinds of problems without understating the humanitarian compassion which the situation demands.

The situation is further complicated by decline in exports after September 11 as well as slowing down of trading and retail sales in the internal market. The looming uncertainty is taking a heavy toll on the economy with many textile industries laying off workers and staff due to decline in the export orders.