During the 1949 negotiations for the creation of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Pakistan’s delegate Mr Ahmed Shah Bokhari, deplored the approach of the negotiating states as one ‘in which refugees might find themselves mere pawns on the international chessboard’. The tragedy and irony of Mr Bokhari’s prescient statement lies in the future engagement of Pakistan with the refugee regime. In the two major crises after Partition, Pakistan treated refugees as mere tools for its strategic interest.
The Partition of India created the largest human migration crisis in history and one of the bloodiest. Approximately 17.9 million refugees crossed the borders of the newly created states, with more than 3 million people dying. The newly independent states had to make emergency provisions for food, shelter, travel and resettlement of millions of refugees during a period of brutal and gruesome violence. Trains carrying dead passengers became the haunting symbol of Partition. In the face of this catastrophe, the newly created governments looked at the relatively successful resettlement of World War II refugees by successive international organisations — the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and International Refugee Organization (IRO). In vain, both states envisaged the creation of the High Commissioner for Refugees that would aid states dealing with refugee crises worldwide and would not be limited to Europe, as both UNRAA and IRO were.
Despite the recent Indo-Pakistan war of 1947-48, both states presented a united front. Pakistan proposed an organisation that looked at refugee issues from a global perspective — arguing that as a UN body, the High Commissioner should operate under a general and global definition and provide both legal and material protection to refugees. Instead, Pakistan experienced the relegation of humanitarian concerns in the face of ideological interest and the desire to shift responsibility. Negotiations between Western and Communist states remained broken. The US and most European states wanted to define refugees very narrowly, imposing a geographical and temporal limit on the definition. They aimed to shift responsibility to other states by arguing that the ‘members of IRO should not be the only ones to bear the cost [of hosting European refugees of the Second World War] and that the United Nations as a whole should defray the expenses.’ While refusing to extend the definition to refugees outside Europe since that would amount to a ‘blank check’ signed by the UN.
This severity of divisions between the major powers, pandering of national interest, efforts to shift responsibility, and disregard for the refugee crises confronting countries outside Europe, forced Pakistan to disengage from future negotiations for both the UNHCR and the Refugee Convention. The UNHCR was established in 1950, and the Refugee Convention in 1951. Both used a temporally and geographically constrained definition of a refugee, which only applied to European refugees who had been displaced ‘as a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951.’ The negotiations made it clear that Partition refugees were the responsibility of the two states and not the international regime.
When Pakistan faced a new refugee crisis due to the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, it looked at refugees as a resource to achieve its strategic goals. On the chessboard between Pakistan and Bangladesh, the Biharis suffered. All non-Bengalis who migrated to East Pakistan during Partition came to be identified as the Urdu-speaking Biharis by ethnic Bengalis and were seen as the symbols of West Pakistan domination. During the first few months of the War, they became a target of extreme violence and atrocities at the hands of pro-liberation Bengalis. When the Pakistan army established control, the Bengalis became targets of systemic violence. After the Eastern Command surrendered, Biharis again became the victims of violence in another round of reprisal and atrocities. In the aftermath, they faced seizure and destruction of their properties, termination of employment and confiscation of businesses.
Out of a million internally displaced Bihari refugees, a majority desired repatriation to Pakistan. Only 180,000 were repatriated through official channels, with an additional 100,000 reaching Pakistan on their own. The remaining Biharis and their descendants were rendered stateless for the next four decades until the landmark judgment of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh in 2008, which formally recognised their right to Bangladeshi citizenship. Even today, 400,000 Biharis and their descendants live precarious lives in various shanty towns throughout Bangladesh, which were originally refugee camps established in 1971 for displaced Biharis. During initial negotiations for dealing with Bihari refugees, Pakistan made it very clear that repatriations could only take place in a particular order to ensure that Pakistani Prisoners of War were returned and army officials were not tried for war crimes, holding Biharis refugees hostage to the strategic interest of the government. During the 1980s and 1990s, the issue of Bihari refugees languishing in Bangladesh was continually sacrificed on the alter of ethnic politics between the Muhajirs, the Sindhis and the Pashtuns. It was feared that allowing repatriation would shift the demographic balance in several constituencies in Sindh. By the start of the new millennium, the issue of Bihari refugees in the political discourse had vanished amidst changes in domestic politics.
Pakistan displayed uncommon generosity in welcoming millions of Afghan refugees after the Soviet Invasion. At the height of the conflict, Pakistan hosted more than 4 million refugees and more than 2.5 million heads of livestock. This put tremendous pressure on its food security and ecological devastation in areas where refugees were hosted due to livestock grazing, food production, housing and wood collection.
Notwithstanding this generosity, Pakistan’s treatment of Afghan refugees has been heavily influenced by strategic interests, primarily centred around weakening Pashtun nationalism and the doctrine of strategic depth. And during the 1980s, Zia-ul-Haq’s desire to bolster domestic support for his rule and Islamisation project. Islamic nationalism was promoted in the displaced and vulnerable refugee population to weaken Pashtun nationalism and fight the USSR. And also to ensure the installation of a sympathetic government in Afghanistan in line with Pakistan’s strategic depth doctrine.
After the Soviet withdrawal, the warm welcome of refugees by policymakers began to wane. Without a national legal regime, Afghan refugees became exposed to the capriciousness of government officials and continue to be exploited as a resource in Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan. After the defeat of the Taliban, during the two decades of civilian rule, Pakistan’s treatment of afghan refugees followed the ebb and flow of its relations with Afghanistan. Harassment of Afghan refugees at the hands of security agencies would intensify during periods of increased tensions between the two governments.
The treatment of Afghan refugees shows an utter failure on the part of consecutive Pakistani governments to provide a durable solution to the problem. Refusal to apply section 4 of the Citizenship Act 1951, which gives citizenship to persons born in Pakistan, ensures the continuation of the crisis. At the very least, the government could create a legal regime that grants Afghan refugees the right to reside in Pakistan for more than a few months at a time. During the last decade, Proof of Registration Cards were used as identification documents for Afghan refugees. They expired in 2012 and were periodically renewed for a few months leaving refugees vulnerable to harassment by government agencies. Even the new smart cards issued in 2021 will only be valid till 30 June 2023. The new cards also demonstrate how the crisis has been needlessly prolonged. Out of 1.25 million Afghan refugees who were issued smart cards, more than 200,000 are children under the age of five, showing how refugeehood is perpetuated for successive generations born in Pakistan.
It is particularly disappointing that refugees would become pawns of politics in a country that faced the horrors of Partition and in which the Muhajirs and their descendants form an indelible part of the identity. The subsequent treatment of refugees by successive governments stands in contrast to the declaration of Jinnah, who, upon admittance of Pakistan to the UN, stated that ‘Pakistan will never be found wanting in extending its moral and material support to the oppressed … and [in] upholding the principles of the UN Charter.’ This treatment forgets the lessons from the early history of Islam when the people of Madinah welcomed the Prophet and his Companions with open arms.
 UN GAOR, 3rd Comm, 4th sess, 264th mtg, UN Doc A/C.3/SR.264 (15 November 1949) para 5.
 Mrs Aase Lionaes, delegate of Norway, see UN GAOR, 3rd Comm, 4th sess, 263rd mtg, UN Doc A/C.3/SR.263 (15 November 1949) para 29.
 The definition proposed by UK was criticised as constituting ‘a blank cheque signed by the United Nations’ by the US delegation, see UN GAOR, 3rd Comm, 5th sess, 326th mtg, UN Doc A/C.3/SR.326 (24 November 1950) para 57.
 Md. Sadaqat Khan (Fakku) and Others v Chief Election Commissioner, Bangladesh Election Commission (2008) 60 DLR (AD) 407 (Supreme Court of Bangladesh).