Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, while speaking at a fundraising event for a dam in Karachi Sunday, promised to confer citizenship to Afghani and Bengali refugees who have been in the country with no civil status for decades.
Pakistan has the second largest rate of refugee influx in the world. About 2.5 million Afghans live in Pakistan. Many of them fled Afghanistan during the 1979 Soviet-Afghan war. Since 2001, there was a fresh influx of refugees post-U.S. invasion and the subsequent Taliban war.
Urdu speaking Biharis, who are referred to as ‘Bengali’ in Pakistan, either fled or got stranded in the country after the 1971 war for Bangladeshi independence. As of 2012, they account for 200,000 according to a government anti-trafficking unit.
"These poor migrants from Bangladesh, they have been here for more than 40 years, their children are grown now … we will give them passports and ID cards, as well as those Afghans whose children have been raised here, who were born here, we will also give them [citizenship]," said Khan in Karachi.
“If you are born in America you get an American passport. It happens in all countries around the world, so why not here?”
Khan’s announcement departs from the policy followed by previous administrations and could sour the PM’s relation with the powerful Pakistani military which has often blamed Afghan refugees as the source of violence in the country and a threat to national security.
The refugees do not get any rights enjoyed by a Pakistani citizen and are often subjected to harassment by the authorities. "Why are they treated without dignity? They are humans. How have we deprived them for 30-40 years?" Khan said.
Pakistani law allows citizenship for all who are born in the country except the children of foreign diplomats, enemy aliens and those who migrated away from territories that became Pakistan after the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.
The repatriation of Afghan refugees also increased since 2014 after an attack on a Peshawar school claiming more than 140 lives for which Pakistan blames Afghanistan. After the attack, Pakistani authorities have carried out a sustained campaign of intimidation and harassment of refugees as per various rights groups.
This year, at least 9,821 Afghan refugees have repatriated to their homeland, according to UNHCR data. Birth rates among the refugee community, however, are high, and at least 14,682 Afghan refugee births were also recorded during the same period, the data show.
Khan's announcement came at a time when the relationship between the two neighboring countries is increasingly souring. Kabul blames Islamabad for harboring Afghan Taliban and Islamabad blames Kabul for providing sanctuary to Pakistani Taliban.
This move by the PM is welcomed by human rights activists. The UNHCR also welcomed the move but said it is waiting to see how his promises are implemented.
Afghanis and ‘Bengalis’ are not the only communities in Pakistan living in the country without any rights. The area of Kashmir, which has been occupied by Pakistan from Indian Administered Kashmir, has two distinct regions; the Gilgit Baltistan Region and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, or Azad Kashmir (free Kashmir). People living in these regions have no rights either.
However, in May, the previous government decided to announce Gilgit-Baltistan as the fifth province of Kashmir and confer the inhabitants with same rights as Pakistani citizens. But nothing has been said about people living in Azad Kashmir.