An Argument for Careful Reflection before Extending Citizenship Rights

20 Sep, 2018

.. by Shahzadi Sofia Baig

I feel the spirit expressed in extending Pakistani nationality to thousands if not millions of refugees living in Pakistan is well intentioned but fraught with danger. Before such a herculean step is taken to include citizenship to possibly millions of foreign nationals, a practical and thorough evaluation should be made of potential consequences. Fortunately the current Prime Minister has back tracked to some extent by announcing that a national consensus should be achieved first. I would argue that Pakistan needs to think long and hard before it compromises on the extension of citizenship to so many people, many of whom have divided loyalties at best or in some cases, may be downright antagonistic to Pakistan. No one denies that refugees who can demonstrate that they have a commitment to the country by establishing roots, have unblemished criminal records or who are married to Pakistani nationals deserve a legal route to citizenship but opening this pathway to so many without proper vetting is a disaster in the making.

The participation of Pakistan with the West after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and our subsequent accommodation of millions of Afghan refugees undermined Pakistani society, particularly in KPK and left the nation with decades of troubles which have yet to be resolved. While it can be said that there was no alternative, the manner in which the border was opened was not only short sighted but it also shortchanged Pakistan causing untold billions in losses which were not made good by the Western allies Pakistan supported. Local industries and the economy suffered, public services such as medical care and schools were overwhelmed, roads and infrastructure deteriorated and public safety overall was compromised. When a developing country such as Pakistan places altruism towards others ahead of its responsibility to care for its own citizens, everyone suffers. No thought was given to what the nation could reasonably do or provide to others, all the while losing sight of our first priority to our own families.

I am not blaming extremism, terrorism or crime solely on our neighboring countries or its people but there can be no denying that foreign agencies operating across the border in Afghanistan and India use the refugee populations and their own illegal operatives hidden amongst them in Pakistan to achieve their nefarious designs. Time and time again, the culprits picked up in terrorist violence in Pakistan are foreign nationals who gain easy access across our porous borders. The arrest of Kulbashan Yadav who confessed that he is an agent of Indian intelligence sent out to promote mischief is only the tip of the iceberg. As a mother I still have not forgot the cowardly attack on children in the APS massacre.

People in Pakistan are more concerned about securing the border to prevent the incursion of undocumented people and humanely repatriating the millions of refugees in our midst so that they can live in dignity in their own countries. The Pakistani military is gallantly working to create a border fence with Afghanistan so that the never ending blame game poisoning Pakistan – Afghanistan relations will come to an end. Granting citizenship to those who enter Pakistan will only encourage others to cross into Pakistan and do the same.
Getting back to naturalizing millions of refugees living in Pakistan, I wonder how many in Pakistan have any idea of how some of these very refugees speak negatively about Pakistan when they are applying for asylum overseas. The vast majority of Afghan refugees you see in Western nations initially were housed in Pakistan where they were given a much warmer reception than in Iran or any other neighboring country. Again the majority of these refugees travelled abroad from Pakistan – often on forged Pakistani documents. When the franchise is extended to millions of refugees, will our passport and citizenship carry less value?

How many of the foreign nationals who have been living in Pakistan have ongoing contact with their countries of origin, travel there on a regular basis or are influenced by popular opinion there ? As one who is knowledgeable of Dari, I am able to follow media in Afghanistan. There is a very divergent narrative there which places the blame for all of Afghanistan’s problems on Pakistan while ignoring the complicity of successive Afghan governments and India in their own misery. It would be foolhardy to believe that Afghan refugees or Bangladeshi refugees do not share the biases of their relatives in their home countries. Can Pakistan weather such feelings while it struggles with its own nation building among different provinces and cultures?

This begs another greater concern that I have. As someone with deep roots in Chitral, KPK and Pakistan, my affiliation and attachment is to my culture, tradition, history, language and soil. Is it fair to expect another newly naturalized citizen to share this passion and deny their own history and culture? Can our community in Chitral continue to celebrate and promote our unique culture and heritage in the face of large numbers of newly naturalized refugees with a different background and culture? We can debate our historical links to Central Asia, the Middle East and South Asia but at what point does this nation begin to see its identity and citizenship as something special? When European countries with considerably more resources and greater levels of development are struggling to integrate much smaller numbers of refugees and asylum seekers, what makes this nation think that it can accomplish such a task? Some quarters in Pakistan have claimed that crime in big cities would be curtailed if foreign nationals were naturalized since not having legal standing forces them to turn to a life of crime to make ends meet. I would like to see any reasonable study that would support such a claim. Frankly a foreign national as a refugee committing a crime in Europe or any Western nation would be promptly deported. The other argument that some of the foreign nationals and refugees are hardworking leads to the question as to why they cannot be hard working in their own countries. We need to create opportunity for our own youth. If Pakistan is serious about reconstruction in Afghanistan and development in Bangladesh or fostering great relations with Iran, should not the nationals of these countries return home to rebuild them by applying that hard work and entrepreneurial skill ?

By all means, Pakistan should endeavor to have good relations with all of its neighbors and treat all refugees with dignity by enabling a humane repatriation of those who can contribute to their own countries’ development. By the same token I fear that diluting the meaning of Pakistani citizenship by the wholesale inclusion of millions is a disaster in the making, especially for regions such as Chitral which prides itself on its unique heritage and culture.  .. Shahzadi Sofia Baig, 20 Sep 2018

2 Comments

  • Atif Anwer Dar says:

    Our policy makers need to understand that Afghan refugees and Bengalis living in Pakistan are two distinct classes. We can not treat them same way. Moreover, we are not signatory to UN or any other World treaty by which we are bound to declare them or accept them as refugee, yet, we must host them with all humanitarian perspective but not at the cost of our security, stability and identity.

  • Rahmat Karim Baig says:

    The prime Minister has as usual, announced without premeditation about naturalization of Afghan refugees and other non Pakistanis . The Afghan refugees are REFUGEES under UN Laws and must return to their mother land. We have hosted them not fostered them. Their presence in Pakistan must be considered as temporary refuge, and it is too much to keep them here any more, let alone give them citizenship cards whatsoever.
    Thanks