Following devastating floods, the road to rebuilding for millions in Pakistan will be long and complicated. Yet, the recovery process affords the government a rare opportunity to make life-changing improvements for Afghan refugees on its soil – in addition to its own citizens.
Of the estimated 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan, over 420,000 live in the districts of the country worst affected by the recent, historic flooding. At the moment, there is local and global support for rebuilding lives, livelihoods, and infrastructure damaged by the floods. International NGOs and world leaders are visiting Pakistan and offering their support in cash and in kind.
If utilised appropriately, this support can be leveraged to aid refugees, and create an integrated and inclusive environment that helps those who have sought safety inside the country at the same time as helping Pakistani citizens.
“Everyone within Pakistan’s borders deserves to live with dignity, safety, and access to shelter, good schools, and quality healthcare.”
Climate-linked disasters impact people regardless of their immigration status or nationality. The Pakistani government – and the international community – should approach the recovery process from the floods with this in mind.
Everyone within Pakistan’s borders deserves to live with dignity, safety, and access to shelter, good schools, and quality healthcare. Pakistan’s government will have to make this case effectively and forcefully to counter two problems: the prevailing xenophobia against Afghan refugees inside the country; and the indifference to the fate of Afghans that has taken hold in the international community.
In doing so, Pakistan will not only do what is morally right, but can also create an inclusive model for other nations when it comes to how to respond to climate-linked disasters.
A troubled existence
Xenophobia, exclusion, harassment, and being scapegoated for myriad national problems have long been a hallmark of the existence for Afghan refugees in Pakistan, which has hosted large numbers of Afghans over four decades of war and crisis in Afghanistan.
Many are left with inadequate housing, and have limited opportunities to participate in the formal labour market. Health and education opportunities – even for those who have been in Pakistan for generations – are poorly managed via scarcely funded ad hoc policies.
As Western forces drew down their presence in Afghanistan last year, Pakistan’s government made it clear that it had no intention of hosting additional refugees. Those it did let in would not be allowed into urban areas – an approach that garnered strong public support.
Despite acute pressure for Afghans to flee the country, Pakistan has lived up to its promise to only allow a small number to enter since the final, chaotic withdrawal of Western troops last August. And even as the situation in Afghanistan has grown worse, attention paid to Afghan refugees has gradually faded from both the international and domestic media coverage.
In Pakistan, two domestic factors heightened this shift: a spiralling economic crisis has made the government and people even less interested in helping refugees; and a political crisis (that continues to this day) has paralysed the state and many of its social programmes.
The floods, devastating as they are, give Pakistan a chance to recalibrate our refugee response. It is an opportunity to bring international attention to the needs of Afghan refugees for better housing and infrastructure. It is also an opportunity to highlight that refugees, like other socio-economically disadvantaged communities, are at high risk of climate-caused humanitarian disasters.
Post-flood rebuilding also provides the government of Pakistan and local and global refugee agencies an opportunity for engagement between local and foreign engineers, urban planners, and public health professionals – among others – to create innovative, sustainable, and holistic solutions to long-standing problems of dignified and safe housing.
“In demonstrating a commitment to rebuilding refugee lives and homes, Pakistan can create a new model of respect and inclusion that can be emulated elsewhere.”
Domestic and international investment in rebuilding climate-resilient homes and infrastructure can also help the local economy around refugee settlements and bring new jobs for both skilled professionals and those with minimal training.
In demonstrating a commitment to rebuilding refugee lives and homes, Pakistan can create a new model of respect and inclusion that can be emulated elsewhere. It can earmark a portion of the relief funds to be used for refugees’ housing, education, and health access, in addition to what is used for local rebuilding.
In doing so, Pakistan would raise global awareness of the common challenges faced simultaneously by refugees and local communities, including climate change.
A successful implementation of the model would allow Pakistani experts to work with – and learn from – their international peers and come up with novel and innovative approaches for addressing complex humanitarian challenges within their own country, while at the same time appreciating (perhaps for the first time) the difficulties faced by refugees on a daily basis. It will give them an opportunity to engage with refugees directly and develop a personal connection not burdened by the toxic and xenophobic rhetoric that prevails in the media.
Most importantly, these deliberate actions on the part of the Pakistani government and policymakers – and the creation of a model built on inclusion and respect – will build bridges of trust and goodwill among the refugees and the Pakistani authorities. The absence of such pillars of cooperation and understanding has ruined countless lives for well over four decades.