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Afghan Refugees Struggle to Enter Pakistan - 2001-12-05

For years, Pakistan has been a haven for refugees from Afghanistan. After the September 11 terror attacks, Pakistan closed its border and refused to let any more Afghans in. But, they still come, slipping across the porous border to become invisible refugees.

Ghulam Zakri and the 42 members of his family cousins, in-laws, and children eke out a precarious existence on the fringes of the Pakistani border city of Peshawar.

A landlord charges them 4,000 rupees a month (about $66) to live in a dark, dank, ramshackle building that lacks most of even the basic facilities, such as sanitation and clean water. To earn that money - a small fortune to Mr. Zakri - the children of the family work at makeshift looms from 4 in the morning to 10 at night to weave carpets with their small, delicate hands.

The men cannot work openly, nor can they get aid from humanitarian organizations, because they fear being discovered and deported by the Pakistani authorities. They are illegal immigrants from Afghanistan - what the aid community here has come to call "invisible refugees."

Dr. Howard Teunisse is a physician in Peshawar with the French humanitarian organization Doctors of the World. He says at least 65,000 people have illegally crossed into Pakistan since it closed the border after September 11 and there are an estimated 1,000 more slipping in every day.

"What we've heard is that you pay about 6,000 rupees to either a Pakistani custom officer or police officer or tribal area officer to get over the border at an official point or a non-official point. But most of them just smuggle themselves in over the border through the tribal areas here into Peshawar," he says.

The Zakri clan are Hazaras, one of Afghanistan's ethnic minorities, from Samangan province in the north. "I was a farmer," Mr. Zakri said, "but a plague of locusts devoured my crop, leaving me and his family with no food and no livelihood."

As if drought were not bad enough, there was also the Taleban to reckon with, says Mr. Zakri's cousin, Ali Juma. "The Taleban demanded money to buy guns and beat us if we did not have it to give to them," said Mr. Juma. The journey was long and precarious, in frigid temperatures. And, although they do not mention it themselves, Dr. Teunisse says that, as Hazaras, they would likely have run into considerable hostility from the Pashtun tribesmen who rule Pakistan's tribal areas.

"So, with no food, with nothing left to go, they arrive here after literally several days of barefoot walking through rocky mountains and encountering people from the tribal area who are not very welcoming to, especially, these Hazara, who are from a different tribe. They will have encountered a lot of hostilities to get here. You hear about men getting beaten up because they are from a different tribe," he says.

But helping illegal Afghan immigrants is a touchy political issue for agencies such as the United Nations that want to maintain good relations with Pakistan in order to continue their aid efforts. The government has now closed the border, and therefore, the illegals officially do not exist in Pakistan's eyes. Dr. Teunisse says these Afghans are indeed "invisible" in Pakistan, where there is already growing public sentiment against Afghanistan in general and Afghan refugees in particular and little sentiment to help the ones who defied the border closure.