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Sharbat Gula, Iconic Afghan Girl, Becomes the Face of Pakistan’s Refugee Problem


by Asad Dandia


In 1984, the iconic photo of an Afghan refugee exposed to the world the human face of a crisis that until then had been represented by numbers and statistics alone. It was the photo of twelve-year-old Sharbat Gula, who was living in a refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan at the time.

Gula was one of millions of Afghan refugees who fled their homes to neighboring Pakistan following the Soviet Union’s invasion of their country in 1979. It was Gula’s photo, taken by National Geographic photojournalist Steve McCurry that became emblematic of the haunting suffering and displacement faced by victims of large geopolitical conflicts. Thirty-two-years later, Gula’s suffering resurfaced, this time shedding light on a world that has continuously and recurrently failed its refugees.

On October 26, 2016, Pakistani government officials charged Gula and two men for allegedly forging their identities. Their arrest was part of a larger government campaign aimed at rounding up unregistered Afghan refugees. If convicted, Gula could have faced up to fourteen years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

At the time, Afghan Ambassador to Pakistan, Omar Zakhilwal, said he would do his best to have Gula released from detention and brought back to Afghanistan for resettlement. After serving fifteen-days in jail, Gula was released by Pakistani authorities and deported. She was sent back to a country she hadn’t seen in decades where she received a warm welcome from President Ashraf Ghani and received the keys to a home in Kabul, provided by the government. While Gula may find some solace in this, her case represents the struggle many Afghan refugees are generally forced to endure in Pakistan.

Afghan Refugees in Pakistan

Successive, protracted conflicts have plagued Afghanistan over the last three decades. A government coup in 1978, the Soviet occupation from 1979-89, internal tribal warfare after the Soviet occupation ended, the American war and occupation that began in 2001, and continuing territorial battles between the current government and the Taliban have created an uninhabitable atmosphere in much of Afghanistan. As a result, millions of Afghans have fled to neighboring countries for safety, with the bulk migrating to Iran and Pakistan.

According to a 2005 census, about half of all Afghans in Pakistan arrived within the first year of the Soviet invasion (1979-1980), and because of Afghanistan’s uncertain and unstable situation, most have remained there since. For Afghans in Pakistan to earn legal (but temporary) refugee status, they must have a “proof of registration” (PoR) card. The UNHCR reports that over 1.5 million Afghans have received this documentation. Hundreds of thousands of others, including Gula, have not.

For this latter group, the challenges are many. For one, a lack of legal status means living in constant fear of arrest or deportation with no access to basic social and medical services. Women face additional challenges, including sexual assault and lack of access to reproductive healthcare. The complex bureaucracy of an increasingly dismissive government coupled with growing negative public sentiment toward Afghans may make it even harder to receive refugee status down the line.

The deadlines imposed on those Afghans being forced to leave Pakistan are arbitrary and often surreptitiously announced. Often, they are made without consideration for the practical challenges of managing large population transfers across borders. In implementing these deportations, government officials often abuse and harass refugees.

For many Afghans, the choice boils down to either remaining in an increasingly hostile host country that treats them as a temporary nuisance, or returning to a war-torn country overwhelmed by unrelenting political violence and precarious living conditions. Some have entertained a third option, however, putting their faith in the sea journey towards Europe. If they manage to succeed and make it to the European continent, they often encounter similarly byzantine institutions and an unwelcoming public attitude.

It is under these mentally draining, emotionally debilitating, and dehumanizing conditions that refugees must live. These are the circumstances under which Gula allegedly forged her identity. Her tragic case is illustrative of a failed system. If it were not for the insurmountable structural hurdles, bureaucratic impediments, and constant dehumanization, she may never have felt the need to allegedly forge her identity. After thirty-two years, however, she had become a refugee without any documentation or indications that the system targeting her will offer just compensation.

Repatriating Afghans in Pakistan

The Pakistani government is resolutely intent on repatriating all Afghan refugees and continues to do so in the most brazen manner. According to an October 2016 UNHCR report, Pakistan has repatriated 217,000 Afghan refugees, so far, in the year 2016 alone. Many of these repatriations are a result of coercive measures and other abuses at the hands of Pakistani authorities.

While refugees who voluntarily wish to return to Afghanistan should be allowed to do so, those who choose to remain in Pakistan should not be compelled to leave. With the economically-strained Afghan government still in the midst of redeveloping much of its public infrastructure and struggling to provide for the basic needs of its population, millions of whom are internally displaced, repatriating refugees to Afghanistan would jeopardize the lives of those on both sides of the border. A resurgent Taliban that has seized control of large parts of the country makes it even more difficult, perhaps even illegal and immoral, to repatriate.

Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch issued a statement urging the Pakistani government to allow refugees to remain in the country, at least until the end of 2017, which would buy more time for Afghanistan to recover, develop, and stabilize. Shortly thereafter, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced that Afghan refugees can remain until the end of March 2017.

While this announcement should be welcomed and would bring some relief to refugees, it falls short of comprehensively solving the issue. Afghans should be granted access to basic healthcare, education, and social services irrespective of their legal status. They must be given the right to exact legal measures against any entities that infringe on their inalienable rights as human beings. Government officials have a responsibility to protect the rights of Afghans living in Pakistan; those officials and officers who violate these rights must be subject to investigation and punishment if found guilty.

To recognize the basic humanity of Afghans is not to do a favor, but to fulfill an obligation. In 1984, Sharbat Gula’s image galvanized the world to act, and instilled a sense of pride among Pakistanis. Today, the tragedy of her ordeal should be a moment of reflection for Pakistan, It is time for the country to look at itself in the mirror, and ask where it fell short, and how it can do better.




The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of World Views Pakistan