Afghan refugees continue to pour out
Peshawar, Pakistan — Mud and stone dwellings replace tent cities. Hundreds of thousands of refugees take root by sinking wells and setting up schools. For Pakistan what once seemed a temporary phenomenon has become a long-term dilemma. With the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan deep into its second year, tens of thousands of refugees continue to enter and settle in Pakistan each month. They flee the ravages of protracted guerrilla war.
According to the most recent Pakistan government estimates, over 2.2 million Afghans, from mountain peasant farmers to university professors, have sought refuge in Pakistan since the first-victims of Afghanistan's Marxist regime began fleeing their country in April 1978. Pakistan faces this growing problem with a mixture of resignation and resentment.
As an average 15,000 to 20,000 asylum seekers swell Pakistan's refugee ranks every week, the overall refugee population has more than doubled in the past year.
"Although the government is not encouraging permanent settlement, it is obviously deeply concerned about the future," said a representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in this sweltering Northwest Frontier town.
"The Pakistanis are unofficially beginning to admit that unless there is a solution to the problem soon, the refugees will be around for years to come. A substantial number will also probably never want to return home."
As in the early days of the Soviet occupation, The Afghan refugees still claim that their sole intention is to go back to their villages and towns once the communists leave. But it is becoming quite clear that as more time elapses, many of these uprooted people will find it difficult to pick up where they left off.
A slow integration process hasbegun among certain refugee groups. Some have begun marrying locally. Others have bought shops in the bazaars or started businesses such as bus services or dealing in precious stones.
A disconcerting number of Afghanistan's educated elite -- lawyers, doctors, and engineers -- have headed for North America and Western Europe, much to the disgust of resistance groups fighting at the front. Few of them, it is felt, are ever likely to return.
The spreading permanence of the refugee situation has also created a combined sense of resignation and resentment among the Pakistanis.
The presence of such vast numbers of outsiders -- the overall human population in the two provinces has jumped by 25 percent -- and the resulting strains on local economies and attitudes have incited some Pakistanis to talk angrily of pushing the Afghans back over the border.
"why should we suffer while our government and other countries only help the refugees? What about the poor Pakistan people?" asked a Pushtun taxi driver from Peshawar. Despite a great deal of grumbling over what is considered to be preferential treatment for the refugees, international relief officials point out that open violence between Pakistanis and Afghans has been surprisingly rare.
Most Pakistanis seem to accept that any political solution in Afghanistan that fails to appease the refugees will not induce them to go home. Also, with so many weapons floating about the campus, any attempt by the government to expel them could lead to fighting.
The sheer size of Pakistan's refugee burden has accentuated certain problems that arose the moment the first Afghans began massing in significant numbers on Pakistani soil. Among them are distribution of food, water, firewood, and also sanitation. But the bleak future has also forced officials to start thinking more realistically about long-term prospects in education, health care, and vocational training.
Both Pakistani and international relief officials are reluctant to refer to the refugees as developing into a Palestinian-type situation. But the analogy is obviously easy to make.
In contrast to refugee problems observed by this reporter in other parts of the world, the Pakistani government appears to have managed remarkably well in view of the difficult terrain, distances, and numbers involved.
Unlike Thailand, Somalia, And Cameroon, the Pakistanis insist on virtual full control of the entire refugee program, with only limited direct responsibility in the hands of expatriate relief workers, a policy not necessarily endorsed by some of the international organizations.
Foreign doctors, for example, are not allowed to treat in the camps. The Pakistani government insists on using its own medical officers. It argues that it does not want to create a foreign-staffed health structure that will disappear once the refugees pack up and leave. Local Pakistanis who also benefit from refugee clinics would then suddenly be left with nothing, it says.
As with many other world refugee situations, corruption also abounds. But aware of the bad publicity that might arise, the government has begun to crack the whip on what are politely and euphemistically referred to as "slight irregularities."
The UNHCR and other international agencies have sought to go beyond providing basic requirements. They have given funds and technical advice to help establish schools, health units, and even replant trees that have been cut down by refugees in search of firewood. In 1980 much camp development was carried out on an ad hoc basis. Relief officials maintain that assistance is now more coordinated.