Pakistani refugees in Afghanistan are facing a bleak future as international organisations withdraw from Gulan camp, in the south-east of the country. Funding for their assistance is now being omitted for plans for 2020. In this photo story, camp residents share their concerns and their hopes.
A total of 7,500 refugee families, including at least 20,000 children, will be affected by this decision and will be left behind with no place to call home. They are caught in the middle of a dispute between the Afghan and Pakistani governments who lay claim over their citizenship, and as a result are unable to access their basic rights.
NRC has been providing education in and around Gulan camp, in Khost Province, since the onset of the emergency. We asked teachers and students inside the camp to describe their concerns for the future if the international community abandons them.
Inside one of the schools for Pakistani refugees run by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), Robina, 44, says she is worried about the future of her students and has lost hope.
“We left all our belongings and were separated from our relatives back in Pakistan, but the humanitarian organisations helped us to stand on our feet again,” she says. “Now, many of them are withdrawing from the camp. Hundreds of Pakistanis will be losing their jobs and the future of thousands of refugee children will be left in the dark.”
Robina studied for a masters degree in political science in Pakistan. After fleeing her home country in 2017, she now works as a teacher as part of NRC’s Education in Emergencies programme in the camp.
In 2014, Pakistan’s military operation in North Waziristan District, an area of north-western Pakistan on the border with Afghanistan, led to the displacement of thousands of civilians into Afghanistan, primarily into Khost and Paktika provinces.
While many of these refugees have since returned, it is estimated that approximately 72,000 still remain. The majority live in Gulan camp, close to the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, in Khost.
In addition, cross-border clashes around the Durand Line in May 2019 displaced a further 750 families from North Waziristan District into Khost as well as over 400 refugee families who had been previously residing in Paktika.
Many of these refugees are apprehensive about returning to Pakistan, as their homes and other infrastructure have been destroyed and they are fearful of rumours that they may be detained upon their return.
Saoud Rahman, a tailor from North Waziristan, was displaced from his village in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan. He has been living in Gulan camp for the last four years. He runs a tailoring shop in the camp bazaar and teaches in one of the elementary schools hosted by NRC.
Rahman echoes Robina’s concerns over declining funds for the refugees, He is particularly worried about the future of the refugee children. “Our children don’t deserve this,” he says. “They deserve their right to better and higher education.”
“Despite being considered as internally displaced by the Afghan government, refugee children are unable to formally enrol in Afghan schools without proof of Afghan citizenship. This highlights another area where this population falls through the gap between government rhetoric and actions,” says Anthony Neal, Advocacy Manager for NRC Afghanistan.
To ensure that refugee children are able to access education, NRC has provided classes and teachers in the camp for up to 20,000 refugee children, with the support of the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD).
Recently, NRC has also been working with the PATRIP Foundation to prepare Afghan schools to eventually integrate refugee children by expanding classrooms and school facilities.
“After multiple years, directly providing education outside the formal school system is becoming increasingly unsustainable. This is why we’ve worked to provide a better solution that will not only benefit refugee children but also benefit the local community by expanding and improving school facilities in the area. However, these additional classrooms will sit empty until there is a change in the government policy regarding refugees, allowing refugee children to be enrolled into public schooling,” says Neal.
Belal, 15, a student who also manages a cricket team, has become a role model for other children of his age. Belal has finished primary school, and since there were no opportunities for secondary education, he simply joined the same class that he had attended before.
“I wish there was a high school and we could continue our studies, before it’s too late,” he says.
Despite these limited opportunities, Belal runs a cricket team. He has a lot of time to practise as there is little else to do in the camp. He wishes to go back to his country and become a national cricket player one day.
“I know how hard life is in this refugee camp and I know it’s hard for every one of us. Through cricket we want to overcome some of the challenges together,” he says with optimism.
While in 2005, Afghanistan acceded to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, it has still not implemented a national, legal framework regulating asylum seekers entering the country.
In addition, as a result of a political border disputes, the Afghan government claims that the Waziristan population never crossed an international border and are therefore considered internally displaced people rather than refugees.
“Despite this claim, refugees from Waziristan are currently not only unable to claim their rights as refugees, they are also unable to enjoy the same rights as internally displaced Afghans, such as freedom of movement beyond Khost, the right to legally work, the right to be registered in Afghan schools, the right to buy land, and, at the root of the issue, the right to obtain a Tazkera (Afghan National Identity Document),” explains Neal.
For Rahmana, 13, the education that NRC was able to provide has been life-changing.
“I’m the first female in my family to go to school, because my brother is supporting me,” Rahmana says with pride. Her brother, who was himself supported by NRC’s education programme, is now defending her right to an education against her conservative parents.
“In the social upheaval of forced displacement there is distress and deprivation, but also opportunity. In this case, quite conservative communities were more open-minded about allowing their daughters to receive an education,” explains Neal.
“Providing adequate funding for these refugees and investing in their wellbeing is the collective responsibility of everyone. All the INGOs and governments of both countries must come together to improve the situation of the refugees in Gulan camp, or else facilitate their voluntary return,” Neal concludes.