Afghan refugees in Pakistan: Harassment and deportation from women’s perspectives

by Sanaa Alimia

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Sanaa Alimia holds a PhD from the Department of Politics and International Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, London. She is currently based at the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin, and is also a visiting faculty member of the Department of Political Science, University of Peshawar. Since 2010 she has been collecting the oral histories of Afghan women and men in Pakistan, Turkey, and Europe. Her book “Afghan Refugees in Pakistan” will be out soon.

Today, between 2.5 to 3 million Afghans live in Pakistan. Around 1.3 million are registered as refugees with the government of Pakistan and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). An additional 1 to 2 million are undocumented migrants. Approximately 74% of Afghans were born in Pakistan, whilst the remaining 26% were born in Afghanistan (Government of Pakistan and UNHCR 2012: 12).
In the 2000s and 2010s, against the backdrop of the “Global War on Terror” (GWOT) and a deteriorating relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan, many Afghans in Pakistan, primarily men, find themselves routinely being profiled at security checkpoints and/or in their neighbourhoods, harassed, subject to extortion, and/or detained arbitrarily. Some have been deported. The experiences of violence reflect how the male body is constructed as a threat to “state security”. To give an example, in 2016 a terrorist attack on the Bacha Khan University in Charsadda killed twenty-one people and injured another thirty-five (Dawn, 2016). Pakistani intelligence services released an initial statement describing the attackers as likely to be Afghan. Immediately after “political experts” declared that the only way these attacks can be stopped is if “Afghans [in Pakistan] are confined to refugee camps and made to leave.”
In human rights and journalistic reports we often hear about male experiences of these forms of violence. Yet in a society based on interconnected nuclear, intergenerational, and/or joint family units, how are women impacted when their male dependents are arrested, harassed, abused, and/or deported? And what can be said about the women’s own experiences of state, political, and other forms of violence in Pakistan?

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One of the biggest impacts of the routine violence that Afghans face is hundreds of thousands of Afghans are leaving Pakistan. In the last six months of 2016, Human Rights Watch reports that over 600,000 Afghans (men and women) left the country (Human Rights Watch, 2017b). Many migrated to Afghanistan. However Afghanistan is still a conflict zone. Since the GWOT started 17 years ago 100,000 Afghans have been killed (Costs of War Project, 2016). Today Taliban violence routinely kills scores of civilians. Due to these security threats many Afghans engage in risky migration journeys to Europe, Turkey, and Australia. Today Afghans are the second highest-asylum seeking population in the European Union, after Syrians.
 In many instances women migrate alongside their spouses, brothers, fathers, and other family members. In some cases remigration and resettlement can take place smoothly. However, in other cases migration is difficult process and shaped by illness, poverty, and gendered insecurities (Goldin, 2016; Human Rights Watch, 2017).
Predominantly, however, the Afghan migration/ deportation patterns are male dominated and female family members stay in Pakistan. This leads to the fragmentation of families and emotional and social support networks for women. It also creates shifts in gender roles. As male economic breadwinners are absent, women are required to generate income themselves. This shift of gender roles is even the case when Afghan men remain in Pakistan but find their movement and control over time is punctuated. In everyday life, Afghan women are increasingly taking on roles that were previously reserved for male household members (grocery shopping, paying bills, accessing public spaces etc.) as a way to protect their male family members.
It is also worth noting that Pakistani women are also affected by the mistreatment of Afghan men. There are a number of intermarriages between Afghans and Pakistanis, particularly in parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. However, Pakistan’s 1951 Citizenship Act (Section 10) only allows Pakistani citizenship to be granted to foreign spouses of Pakistani men but not of Pakistani women. Whilst political actors have tried to lobby in the National Assembly for the foreign spouses of Pakistani women to be able to acquire citizenship, so far this has been unsuccessful. In 2016 a number of Pakistani women married to Afghan men staged protests in Peshawar against the arrests and deportations of their husbands and sons (Express Tribune, 2016). However, to date the state has not responded to their demands. In addition, as a result of increased state violence, a number of Afghan women married to Pakistani men are finding that their Pakistani citizenship status and that of their children is under threat.
Further, as Afghan men are subject to routine profiling, this creates emotional and psychological strains on domestic relationships that are played out in gendered ways. For example, in interviews that I conducted I was told how male household members, after finding themselves restricted in their movements and with limited control over their time (because they are often, and unpredictably, being stopped by law-enforcement agencies). As a result they would feel frustrated and take out this anger through verbal and physical abuse on their family members, such as wives, daughters, and sons. Indeed as a number of works on patriarchal violence outline, feeling dominant constructions of masculinity being attacked in the so-called public sphere, it is in the domestic sphere that some men seek to reclaim a sense of power – an experience that is also mediate by race and class (Sokoloff and Du Pont, 2005; Hooks, 2004; Rivera, 1994).

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Critically, however, it is also important to note that whilst Afghan women in Pakistan appear not to be stopped-and-searched, arbitrarily detained, subject to extortion, and/or harassed in the same way as Afghan men are, this does not mean incidents of state violence do not occur. They do. They are just underreported. In a number of the cases that I recorded, at times of peak state clampdowns on Afghan communities women were arrested alongside male relatives. This also serves a purpose of communicating to Afghan men their emasculation and disempowerment in the country. In addition, in Pakistan law enforcement agents are renowned for their corruption and often stop individuals and groups to earn an extra buck (Abbas, 2011). Poor women, especially non-citizens and especially working women, such as those who live in “katchi abadis” (informal housing) and/or work as scrap collectors or domestic workers are easy targets. 
In Pakistan – as is this the case globally – the battle against patriarchy is on going. Pakistan’s female literacy rates are ranked at 45% against the male literacy rate of 69% (Human Rights Watch, 2017c). In addition, violence against women, through so-called honour killings, acid attacks, domestic violence, and forced marriages is an on-going issue. These are issues that also impact Afghan women in Pakistan but fail to get noticed as the state and/or international institutions focus their concerns on refugee repatriation. In addition, Pakistani political and community organisations for women often have less access to migrant women and/or do not focus on these groups as they are not potential "vote banks".
Afghan women in Pakistan however, have continued to organise themselves through institutionalised and informal support groups, as they historically have done, in order to provide support and relief. Yet these efforts, whilst crucial, are not enough. Instead they reflect a broader and longer-term failure for refugee and migrant women in Pakistan where their voices and needs have not been heard. This must be redressed (27 February 2018).

Further reading & links

Alimia, S. (Forthcoming 2018/2019) Afghan Refugees in Pakistan, University of Pennyslvania Press.

Human Rights Watch (2017a) “Greece: Dire Risks for Women Asylum Seekers In Lesbos Camp, Neglect Threatens Women’s, Girls’ Safety, Health”.

Human Rights Watch (2017b) Pakistan Coercion, UN Complicity: The Mass Forced Return of Afghan Refugees, Islamabad.

Human Rights Watch (2017c) World Report, New York.

Costs of War Project (2016) War-related Death, Injury, and Displacement in Afghanistan and Pakistan 2001-mid-2016, Brown University Providence.

“APS Mastermind Claims Bacha Khan University Attack, 21 Killed”, by Ali Akbar, 20 January 2016, Dawn.
“Call For Justice: Pakistani Women Married To Afghan Men Protest”, The Express Tribune, 6 September 2016, Peshawar.

Goldin, M. (2016) Refugee Women and Children in the Calais ‘Jungle’ and the Dismantling of the Camp: Is it Really the End? Oxford.

Alimia, S. (2014) “Afghan (Re)Migration from Pakistan to Turkey: Transnational Norms and the ‘Pull’ of Pax-Ottomanica?” Insight Turkey, 16: 4, 159-186.

Alimia, S. (2014) “Violence and Vulnerabilities: Afghans in Pakistan.” Forced Migration Review, 46: Afghanistan’s Displaced People: 2014 and Beyond.

Hooks, B. (2004) The Will to Change: Men Masculinity, and Love, Washington.

Government of Pakistan and the [UNHCR] United Nations High Commission for Refugees (2011) ‘Population Profiling and Verification Response Survey’ Islamabad.

Khan, A. (2002) “Afghan Refugee Women's Experience of Conflict and Disintegration”, Meridians, 3: 1, 89-121.

Rivera, J. (1994) “Domestic Violence Against Latinas by Latino Males: An Analysis of Race, National Origin, and Gender Differentials”, Boston College Third World Law Journal, 14:2, 231-257.
Sokoloff, N.J. and Dupont, I. (2005) “Domestic Violence at the Intersections of Race, Class, and Gender: Challenges and Contributions to Understanding Violence Against Marginalized Women in Diverse Communities”, Violence Against Women, 11:1, 38-64.