Coverage of the recent report by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees was commendable in most international media outlets, although some western newspapers did not give Pakistan the prominence it deserves for dealing with a difficult and dangerous problem that was none of its making.
The BBC reported dependably, pointing out that “Afghanistan still accounts for the world’s largest number of refugees, and neighbouring Pakistan is host to more refugees than any other country, with an estimated 1.6 million.”
It is a sad commentary on the collective lunacy of mankind that after thousands of years of social development we find it impossible to live in peace together and that we will never do so. It is shameful that we have created more refugees than ever before and that they exist in squalid misery around the world, but there seems little possibility that the number will decrease to the extent that we can ever heave a sigh of compassionate relief, buoyed by the knowledge that at least some of our fellow-humans have progressed from wretchedness towards what we venture to call normality.
The UN High Commission for Refugees is a saintly organisation run by people whose dedication is admirable, and its latest report – ‘War’s Human Cost: UNHCR Global Trends 2013’ – would, we might think, make even the most callous and iron-hearted extremist give pause for a moment for reflective compassion.
Not a hope. Savages care nothing for human beings, not even the defenceless infants they drive into hopeless misery. The photographs in refugee camps of mothers with their babies are tear-jerking to most people, but the savages are entirely dry-eyed. They care nothing for those on whom they have inflicted endless agony.
The UNHCR states that “by end-2013, 51.2 million individuals were forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, generalised violence, or human rights violations. Some 16.7 million were refugees: 11.7 million under UNHCR’s mandate and five million Palestinian refugees registered by UNWRA. The global figure included 33.3 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and close to 12 million asylum seekers. If these 51.2 million persons were a nation they would make up the 28th largest in the world.”
This is staggering condemnation of the civilisation in which most of us imagine we live. The fact that national governments have permitted such a horrible tragedy to unfold is evidence that we are a morally incompetent species.
I began to become aware of the saintly work of the UNHCR when the first refugees fled into Pakistan from Afghanistan following the Soviet invasion. Indeed I arrived on my first tour of duty in the Subcontinent a few days after Soviet troops arrived in Kabul, and saw the start of the refugee problem, which was heartbreaking.
The Soviets had no idea what they were letting themselves in for in Afghanistan when they invaded in 1979, any more than the Americans had 20-odd years later when they casually assumed that military swagger would result in creation of decent government. The appalling Bush declared in a speech to the UN in 2004
that, “we will finish the historic work of democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq,”
but both the US and the Soviets were defeated by insurrectionists of various persuasions and the only joint achievement they might claim is creation and perpetuation of a vast number of refugees.
When I returned to Pakistan in 1988 it was obvious that the Afghan refugee problem had not gone away. The following year in Quetta I was told by the Afghan mujahideen public relations representative that matters were extremely serious and that international assistance, such as that being undertaken by the mission to which I was accredited, was much appreciated. And this representative, a Mr Karzai (I still have his calling-card, with date inscribed), seemed to be genuine in his concern for his less fortunate country-folk. He may have been a Gucci guerrilla, and he certainly didn’t live in the well-administered but basic camp I visited, but at least he was trying hard for his people.
But in his many years as president Karzai has been unable to encourage many of his fellow-citizens to return to their homeland. As the UNHCR states “one in every five refugees in the world is from Afghanistan” and that last year “renewed conflict and security concerns also displaced 124,000 persons.”
Pakistan has dealt with the Afghan refugee problem on a large scale. While the official figure of resident Afghans with refugee status is 1.6 million, it is obvious that there are very many more Afghans than that living in Pakistan – probably about double the number, some of whom are well-integrated and productive members of whatever local society in which they have settled.
A few, indeed, especially in the transport industry (mostly legal) and drug-trafficking (not at all legal), have become dollar millionaires. But taken as a whole, the Afghan influx has not served Pakistan well. The CIA’s use of Afghan ‘returnees’ from refugee camps to plant drone-alerting tabs on suspects took some time to detect but didn’t create an atmosphere in which Afghan refugees could be regarded with sympathy.
Speaking of his organisation’s report about the appalling plight of refugees, the head of UNHCR, Antonio Guterres, said the obvious, in that “the world is becoming more violent, and more people are being forced to flee.” This honourable man went on to declare that “to see the Security Council paralysed, when all these crises are evolving, is something that doesn’t make sense.”
Exactly. And it doesn’t make sense because the major refugee problems were caused by action or inaction by members of the UN Security Council.
Then Guterres said what most of us think. With conviction that will hardly have endeared him to the centres of power, he declared that “what frustrates me is the suffering of people, to see so many innocent people dying, so many innocent people fleeing, so many innocent people seeing their lives completely broken, and the world being unable to put an end to this nonsense.”
And so far as Afghanistan is concerned, there will be many more innocent people suffering, dying and fleeing as the country collapses into deeper chaos while nobody does anything about it. UNHCR and Pakistan had better be prepared to be even more tolerant, understanding and helpful in the future. And they won’t expect to receive much gratitude from anyone for their efforts.
By: Brian Cloughley