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Afghan refugees mark 40 years of existence in Pakistan

UNITED STATES (OBSERVATORY NEWS) — Afghan boys in a market in Peshawar in the northeast of Pakistan are busy selling fruit on carts with signs written in Dari or Pashto, while restaurants in the bustling bazaar sell Afghan dishes like Kabuli kabuli rice.

But this market called “Mini Kabul” or “Mini Kabul” is in Pakistan, which this week marks the forty-year anniversary of its reception of Afghan refugees.

The occasion bears bleak memories of whole generations of families who fled the war to start a new life in Pakistan, but it still faces an unknown future without a clear horizon towards obtaining citizenship.

“We spent a whole life here,” said Niaz Muhammad, 50, a worker who fled the Afghan state of Nangarhar in the 1980s. “We held wedding ceremonies here, our children were born here (…) We have jobs and jobs here as there is no peace in Afghanistan. So we are happy here.”

On Sunday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres arrives in Islamabad for a conference the United Nations says will “remind the world of the fate of millions of Afghans who are refugees.”

“The most important challenge now is to continue to provide support to Pakistan in hosting them (…) and also to allow Afghan young people here to gain skills and learn,” said Endrika Ratwati, director of the Asia Branch of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Temporary position

Pakistan is one of the countries hosting the largest number of refugees in the world, with nearly 2.4 million registered refugees, and unregistered others who fled Afghanistan, some of them since the period of the Soviet invasion in 1979.

Many live in camps, while others have established their lives in Pakistani cities, where they pay rents and contribute to the economy.

Mini Kabul, the bustling refugee market in the northeastern city of Peshawar, has about 5,000 stores, all run by Afghan refugees.

But their residency status remains temporary, as their deadlines to leave Pakistan are constantly delayed amid the escalating conflict in Afghanistan.

Many Pakistanis view them with suspicion, accuse them of encouraging insurgency and criminality and demand that they be returned to their homes.

Even those who spent decades in the country could not own real estate or obtain ID cards, and only recently were they allowed to open bank accounts.

Shortly after he took office, Prime Minister Imran Khan pledged to grant them citizenship, but his controversial promise caused outrage and has not been discussed since.

I’d better stay.

However, many refugees whom AFP spoke to in Peshawar recently said they love their new country.

Javed Khan, 28, was born in Pakistan, married a Pakistani, and had three children. “I will leave only if Pakistan forces me to,” he told France Press.

But the situation can change. Afghanistan may be about to take the first step on a long path toward peace.

On Thursday night, the United States announced that it had reached, during the ongoing negotiations with the Taliban, a week-long truce, which it hoped would allow it to reach an agreement, at a time when President Donald Trump said that the conclusion of the agreement was “very soon.”

Such an agreement would allow Washington to start withdrawing its soldiers from Afghanistan in exchange for security guarantees from the Taliban and promised to start peace talks with the Afghan government.

However, the refugees expressed doubts about what this might mean for them.

Muhammad Firoz, who came from Kabul to Pakistan more than 40 years ago, now runs a clothing store in Mini Kabul.

Sitting in a chair in front of his store, he says he supports the withdrawal of US forces, but has expressed concern about the motives of the United States and the Taliban.

He saw that they are “pursuing their interests. Nobody cares about us, God is our only hope.”

Even if peace comes, most refugees say they prefer to stay in Pakistan where they can support their families.

About 5,000 refugees live in Khursan camp near Peshawar.

Yassin Allah, 26, collects and sells scrap. His mother, four siblings and four sisters are staying in a two-room house made of mud and without sanitation.

They also came from the state of Nangarhar, which is on the other side of the border. Despite the harshness of life in the camp, they are not eager to return.

“I do not have a job or work in Afghanistan. What will I do there?” Yassin Allah said.

Muhammad the worker from Nangarhar agrees with him.

“I have to support my family and children,” says Mohamed, father of seven children, all born in the camp. He was speaking in Afghan Pashto with a Pakistani accent.

“I say from my heart very clearly: I prefer to stay here. I do not want to go back.”

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