The Forgotten Refugees

Stranded for Decades, 2 Million Afghans Struggle to Survive in Pakistan

It is nearly midnight in Peshawar, a small city in northwest Pakistan, and Adrogal Gul is laying out his blanket, preparing for bed. His mattress is a slab of concrete tucked in the lee of a dumpster in a filthy parking lot near the city's White Mosque. The sidewalk is cold and his blanket is thin, perhaps mercifully so, as it is home to vermin that leave nickel-sized welts.

Forty or so men line the sidewalks nearby. Like Adrogal, nearly all are Afghan refugees.

If Adrogal is lucky, he won't be asleep for long. Most nights the trucks arrive around 2 a.m., air horns blaring a rude wake-up call. The drivers offer long shifts and short money; if chosen, the laborers will work until 7 p.m., loading sacks of grain, or gravel and stone, or electronics. The pay for 17 hours of hard labor? Fifty rupees, or 82 cents.

Assad-Ullah (right) carries bananas. He thinks he is 10 or 11 years old.
Photograph by Michael Kamber
Assad-Ullah (right) carries bananas. He thinks he is 10 or 11 years old.

Adrogal offers up a hand so swollen and calloused it resembles a small baseball glove, then considers his plight. "I came to Pakistan as a baby in my mother's arms," he says. Except for two short stays in Afghanistan, he has lived all of his 22 years in Pakistan, mostly in refugee camps and squatter settlements. Yet he has no citizenship. In fact, he has no birth certificate or documentation of any kind. Officially he does not exist. He is what the Pakistanis call "an illegal refugee."

Adrogal's father once had a small shop where he bought and resold scraps of paper and bone and bits of rope that the legions of boys here scour from the gutter. Adrogal would like to have a small shop also, he says, and though he has no idea how to go about achieving it, some nights he lies on the ground thinking about this better life.

For two decades, Pakistan has seen wave after wave of refugees arrive from Afghanistan. In the 1980s, they fled the Soviets; in the early '90s, the mujahideen; in '96 it was the Taliban. Today, they're escaping the American bombing campaign. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has set up tent cities to accommodate this latest group, whose numbers could reach into the hundreds of thousands, and international aid organizations are desperately raising tens of millions of dollars to pay for their care. Yet none of that money is earmarked for Afghanistan's forgotten refugees, the estimated 2 million expatriates already residing in Pakistan. "My boss got all excited about the money coming in to help the new refugees," relates a United Nations employee. "I asked her, 'What about the old refugees?' She said, 'Forget about the old refugees.' "

A tiny percentage of these Afghans—merchants, teachers, and other professionals—has made the transition into Pakistan's upper classes, yet the vast majority live in shantytowns, in mud huts, tents, and caves. Their children suffer the effects of malnutrition—nearly all are illiterate. In a country where the average Pakistani makes about a dollar and a half a day, Afghans are the poorest of the poor, consigned to a semipermanent underclass.

As for the Pakistanis, 20 years of expending scarce resources on outsiders has severely tried their charitable impulses. "We can't even feed our own people, how are we supposed to feed 2 million Afghans?" is the refrain heard most often. And so the Afghans are harassed and unwelcome in their host country, and unable to return to a homeland devastated by 22 years of war, carpeted with an estimated 10 million land mines.

Though traumatized by their exodus, many of the new refugees will fare better than their countrymen who have been here for years. Once registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the newcomers will be provided with food rations, schools, medical care, and a small stipend. Those not able to register—the thousands using smugglers' routes to bypass the often closed Pakistan border—will simply seep into the vast underground of Afghans already here.

I-11/4, Islamabad

Twenty years ago, there was a small bus stop opposite a fruit market on the outskirts of Islamabad, in a sector known as I-11/4. Afghan refugees—roaming the country searching for relatives and work—began to pitch tents near the depot during long layovers. Today there are an estimated 200,000 Afghans on the site living in an interconnected maze of mud houses that stretches as far as the eye can see, down through washes and up over the sides of rolling hills. Then the huts give way to tents, and further still, to a few caves with beds and belongings neatly placed. There is no potable water, no electricity, no gas, no publicly financed school. I-11/4 is a place where child labor is the norm, where scores of infants die before their first birthday.

From the roofs of the mud houses, you can look out toward Islamabad proper and see new developments creeping across the open fields toward the camp. International Islamic University's new campus, due to open next month, went up just a kilometer or so away; some of the world's poorest refugees are occupying prime real estate. Developers have leapfrogged the refugees, purchasing plots as far away as I-17.

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