Born and raised in Pakistan, but living in legal limbo

KARACHI, Pakistan – For these four young people, Pakistan is their home. They were born and raised there. They have big plans: to study, to open their own business, to succeed.

But Pakistan says their home is elsewhere. Each of the four – a lab technician, a web developer, a jewelry maker, a former welder with travel dreams – were born to Afghan parents who fled to Pakistan because of war and persecution.

Children have been in a legal limbo their entire lives, risking being deported to a conflict-torn country they have never seen.

Some live in Al-Asif Square, an area of ​​low-rise barracks-like apartment buildings on the outskirts of the port city of Karachi, where the refugee population is often blamed for high crime rates and gang violence. . With their vulnerable legal status, opportunities are hard to seize.

Pakistan is home to around hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugee children. Without official recognition or citizenship, they cannot attend most schools or universities, get many jobs, or buy property or cars.

Muhammad Saleem, 24, a lab technician, has no papers, so no medical school will admit him.

His lack of documentation also means he earns about a quarter of the market rate for lab technicians, or $ 85 per month.

“Unfortunately, I couldn’t fulfill my parents’ dream of becoming a doctor,” he said.

While Pakistani law grants citizenship to those born there, the government has long refused to recognize the claims of Afghan children in the face of public pressure to stem the tide of Afghan refugees. Recently, Prime Minister Imran Khan introduced a foreigner registration card system that would allow Afghans and their locally born children to start businesses – but that would still deny them all of their legal rights, advocacy groups warn humans.

The problem could soon become much bigger.

Politicians and the public fear that more refugees will arrive in Pakistan from Afghanistan after the Taliban took control of the country in August, further clogging cities and camps for internally displaced people. Already, Pakistan officially hosts 1.4 million refugees, according to the United Nations, although experts say hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants also live there.

The wave of new refugees has been smaller than expected, in part because of Pakistan’s tighter border controls. However, Islamabad expects an influx once the border opens as economic conditions and stability deteriorate in Afghanistan.

Young stateless people in Pakistan work and live on the margins of society.

Madad Ali, a 23-year-old web developer, has worked on online platforms such as Upwork that connect freelancers with employers. But jobs that pay electronically require ID cards and bank accounts, so he found some clandestine methods.

Mr. Ali is Hazara, an ethnic group that has been persecuted in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan. His parents fled in 1995, a year before the Taliban occupied about three-quarters of the country and applied a harsh interpretation of Islamic law.

While working at a computer in his modest apartment, Mr. Ali says his lack of references depresses him. “To beat depression,” he says, “I go to the beach a lot.

Tens of thousands of children do not go to school because they do not have a government-issued birth certificate, and most study in religious seminars to memorize the Koran or collect recyclable waste for them. scrap dealers in major markets.

In Al-Asif Square, most of the residents are refugees, and in the middle of the apartments is a school for refugee children which offers classes up to grade 12. It is registered with the Afghan Ministry of Education, but the school’s certification is not recognized. by Pakistan.

Sameera Wahidi, 22, completed her studies there but could not advance because she did not have the necessary papers.

“A person who wants to continue their education has to go to Afghanistan,” said Ms. Wahidi, whose parents left the Afghan province of Takhar in the 1980s. “But I was born in Pakistan and I have never seen the Afghanistan of my life. “

She added: “For our parents, Afghanistan could be their homeland, but for me Pakistan is my country.

She learned how to make earrings, necklaces and bracelets at a United Nations center for Afghan refugees. She made a modest living until the coronavirus pandemic.

“Now the buyers have stopped buying our work,” Ms. Wahidi said, “but we hope it picks up soon.”

When Mr Khan, the Prime Minister, pledged to grant citizenship to children of refugees after taking office in 2018, Samiullah, a child of Afghan refugees, was among the thousands – including Rohingya and Bengali Long stranded in Pakistan by decades of unrest – who attended a rally to thank Khan.

But the political backlash forced Khan to abandon his pledge. Political parties in Pakistan have said that Afghan refugees are upsetting the ethnic balance in parts of the country.

This year, 23-year-old Samiullah had to quit her job as a $ 7-a-day welder in a workshop in Al-Asif Square because the work affected her eyes.

“Now I’m looking for work, but everyone asks me to bring a Pakistani national ID card,” said Samiullah, who, like many Afghans, only uses one name.

Samiullah once wanted to open her own metal shop. Like many young people, his mind wanders, and he dreams of seeing the United States or Australia. But he doesn’t have a passport.

“It is not my fault that I was born and raised in Pakistan, and it looks like I will die here too,” he said, adding, “But I firmly believe that the government, a day, will give us citizenship cards. . “

Progress has come in small steps. In 2019, Mr Khan allowed refugees with proof of registration cards to open bank accounts.

Yet the refugees in Al-Asif Square live in a precarious state. Their non-legal status makes them vulnerable to exploitation. Law enforcement officials, they say, frequently target them.

“I avoid leaving the neighborhood for fear of the police,” Samiullah said. They search him and demand to see his ID, he said, then let him go after receiving a bribe of around $ 3.

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