With one of the highest refugee populations in the world, Pakistan’s new Prime Minister, Imran Khan, has announced that it will begin granting citizenship to those refugees, specifically those from Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Many refugees have been residents of Pakistan for 30 years now, and have children that grew up in a place in which they have never had full citizenship. The Prime Minister noted that there is no reason why Pakistan should not move forward with this, as a majority of countries already have legislation in place that grants refugees citizenship in far shorter amounts of time. He also mentioned that their lack of documentation inhibits their education and ability to secure a job, therefore many refugees in the country turn to crime in order to make ends meet. By providing them with this documentation, Khan hopes to reduce crime rates and end the scare tactics that have long been used to encourage voluntary repatriation for Afghan refugees, such as looming deadlines of legal status expiration that continue to be pushed back.
Both the Human Rights Watch and the United Nations Refugee Agency applauded the Prime Minister’s announcement, with the latter stating that they “look forward to working closely with the government of Pakistan on this issue in the coming weeks.” The Guardian mentioned that while Prime Minister Khan’s intentions are good, it may be difficult for any form of legislation on this to get through parliament. The chief of Khan’s rival political party, Balochistan National Party (BNP), called the Prime Minister’s statement “disappointing,” commenting on the strained relations with Afghanistan which include the current building of a fence along their border, according to The News, a Pakistani news source. This would suggest some contradictions in policy, but could still be a step in the right direction.
While it would certainly be progressive if Pakistan were to go through with this plan, it is unclear as to whether it could feasibly be passed through Parliament. Prime Minister Khan made this statement without consulting the Pakistani military, which has long since been a key decider on the fate of Afghan refugees. Khan also did not definitively specify if citizenship would be an option for all Afghanis and Bangladeshis seeking refuge in the country, or only those who were born in Pakistan. This could lead to increased frustration among these refugee groups, especially if someone who has lived in the country for decades is not allowed citizenship because they were not born there. It is also important to bring into question Prime Minister Kahn’s motives in announcing this. He claims to be for increasing human rights in the nation and has commented that anyone born in the country is Pakistani, but some are speculating that there may be political motives behind his actions. Many of the Afghan refugees are part of the Pashtun ethnicity, from which a large amount of Khan’s support came in the election over the summer.
Assuming that Khan’s proposal is only offering citizenship to the Afghan refugees that were born in Pakistan, that still benefits at least 1.5 million people, as approximately 60 percent of the Afghan refugee population, according to the UN Refugee Agency. This figure also does not include the Bangladeshi refugees that have also been promised citizenship by the Prime Minister, therefore the potential benefit would be even greater. While Pakistani law gives citizenship to everyone born in the country, it excludes “children of foreign diplomats, ‘enemy aliens’ and those who migrated away from territories that became Pakistan after the partition of the subcontinent in 1947,” according to Al Jazeera. Both Afghanistan and Bangladesh fall into those exceptions, and therefore people who have lived their entire lives in Pakistan are not citizens, and Prime Minister Khan is saying that he would like to change that — a change that is far overdue.
This may be a momentous step for a more progressive Pakistan, if it is able to get through Parliament. While it seems that Prime Minister Khan is invested in the well-being of these refugees as well as reducing crime within his country, it is still possible that there may be some political motivations as well. Regardless, granting citizenship for more than 1.5 million people would certainly promote more friendly demeanors towards refugees in the midst of a crisis, as well as potentially easing tensions with Afghanistan in the process. Hopefully, other countries will follow suit in making the refugees within their borders feel more welcome and give them the opportunities to succeed within their society.