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Drain and Gain: Pakistan and the Afghan Refugee Crisis

15 May 2014
Bryn Lacey
Source: Flickr (Creative Commons). User: United Nations

Pakistan must investigate how to utilise its burgeoning Afghan refugee population and increase the capability of its own regional police force, rather than just looking to Afghanistan to resolve its emigration outflows.

Refugees from Afghanistan into Pakistan have been a constant problem for the Pakistani government, as the two countries share a large Pashtun population and a relatively porous border, known as the Durand Line. Recently, however, the Pakistani authorities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province have accused Afghani refugees of being responsible for an increase in crime; claiming that they now account for forty-five per cent of all crime in the province. The KP authorities have requested that the Afghan Government tighten its border with Pakistan, as well as introducing other new measures to limit the access that Afghan refugees have to Pakistan.

In an effort to stem a growing Afghan refugee population, the Pakistani Government has restricted the freedom of movement of Afghanis who do not have the required legal documentation. Coupled with this, the Pakistani authorities have requested that Afghanistan increase its own border controls, as Afghanistan’s lack of border security has contributed to of the size of the refugee crisis.

The Afghanistan Border Police (ABP) is an under-equipped and under-manned force that is incapable of exerting control over the 2,400 kilometre border between the two countries. A particular problem is the fifty thousand people who move back and forth between the countries on an almost daily basis. The ABP is still heavily reliant on Coalition forces for security and also for assisting in border control. It is not equipped to satisfy Pakistan’s needs in this regard.

The Pakistani Government is concerned that the number of refugees crossing the Durand Line will increase dramatically in 2014, as a result of threats of violence levelled by the Taliban against anyone who participates in any way in the upcoming run-off presidential election. The Taliban considers that process illegal. Pakistan is so concerned that it is preparing for as many as three million refugees over a twenty day period in July alone.

The Pakistani Government must accept that the Afghan Government can do little on its own to stem the tide of refugees. Consequently, it will have to deal with a large number of refugees, regardless of any measures the Afghan Government may introduce.

An increasing concern for Afghanistan, resulting from this refugee exodus, is an apparent “brain drain”. The loss of skilled and educated people is limiting Afghanistan’s economic potential, further exacerbating the issue and causing more people to emigrate. Job security and a decent wage are not the only concerns for Afghanis; security is fragile, with a still violent Taliban creating a situation that many people are desperate to leave.

These factors combine to make Pakistan a favoured refuge. Rather than seeing this as a burden, however, Pakistan has the potential to turn the situation in its favour. Pakistan itself is experiencing a brain drain and, through the Afghani refugees, has the potential to fill the gap left by its own emigration. Pakistan currently hosts 1.6 million refugees from Afghanistan alone; it would be prudent for the Pakistani Government to investigate how to take advantage of the potential inherent in such a large number of people in an attempt to counter its own brain drain.

This potential is tempered by the Pakistani authorities’ claims that the refugees are causing an increase in crime in KP province. At the same time, the police force is understaffed and undertrained to undertake the task of dealing with the refugees. A lack of co-ordination between civilian and military intelligence units, as well as within the police force itself, has led to an inability to track down or even monitor criminal networks operating in Pakistan. Despite the formation of new units to combat more areas of crime, the lack of training provided to many of these units has hamstrung their efforts.

Unfortunately for Pakistan, there is little talk in Afghanistan of tightening border security. Despite the protests of Pakistan, the Afghan Government simply does not have the resources to exert control over its own borders; it can hardly maintain control inside the borders. Again, these problems will be exacerbated by the withdrawal of Coalition forces.

It is therefore necessary for Pakistan to find ways to utilise its refugee population in a more efficient manner, as well as increasing the resources and capabilities of its police forces.


Bryn Lacey is a Research Assistant at the Indian Ocean Research Programme at Future Directions International. 

This article was originally published by Future Directions International. It is republished with permission.