Pakistan is the only country Gul Mohammad, a 42-year-old Afghan refugee, knows.
He was born in a refugee camp in the teeming, sizzling northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar.
Eighteen years ago, he married a Pakistani woman, hoping to settle down in the city he calls home. Yet the father of four has not yet been able to get Pakistani citizenship even though the country’s laws allow him to obtain nationality because of his spouse.
“I don’t want to go back to Afghanistan because my children will have no future there,” he told RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal about his war-ravaged homeland.
But living in Pakistan is anything but easy.
His wife is now finding it difficult to renew her government identity card because her husband — as the recognized head of the household — does not have a Pakistani national identity card, which serves as proof of citizenship and is required for government services and to make business transactions.
“When I try to enroll my children into the public schools, they are asked for their father’s national ID card,” he said, adding that his children were being deprived of their education. “I now visit government offices to get my Pakistani ID card, but they turn me away.”
But Mohammad now sees a glimmer of hope.
The Peshawar High Court, the top court in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, granted citizenship rights on June 17 to four Afghan men who are married to Pakistani women. “They will now have all [citizenship] rights like other Pakistanis,” said Saifullah Mohib Kakakhel, a lawyer who won the cases. But he added that the four men would still be unable to get Pakistani passports.
Nauman Kakakhel, another lawyer in Peshawar, said the courts had granted citizenship to some 300 of his plaintiffs, most of whom are Afghan men married to Pakistanis.
“Terrorism and other similar policy matters and certain policies prevent the government from granting citizenship to [eligible] Afghans,” he told Radio Mashaal. “But we have now filed their cases before the courts, which are now ordering the government to give them citizenship.”
Afghan refugees and human rights campaigners consider the recent granting of citizenship to a few hundred Afghan men a welcome step. But most Afghans born in Pakistan or living there for decades still have no path to Pakistani citizenship.
Islamabad is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or the 1967 protocol intended to remove constraints on who can be considered a refugee.
But it has hosted one of the largest refugee populations in recent history. UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, currently estimates that 1.4 million documented Afghan refugees live in Pakistan. It is estimated that an equal number of Afghans remain undocumented.
Since the communist coup in Afghanistan in April 1978 and the subsequent Soviet invasion in December 1979, millions of Afghans have fled to Pakistan to seek shelter from the various cycles of war and extremist governments that have taken power.
The treatment of Afghan refugees in the country is a major human rights issue often reflected in the headlines, with arbitrary arrests, security sweeps, mistreatment, and harassment.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), a leading rights watchdog, welcomed the Peshawar court decision granting the Afghan husbands of Pakistani women citizenship rights. The HRCP said the move was in line with Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognizes citizenship as a fundamental right.
“It will go some way towards easing the hurdles that refugees face, including harassment by law enforcement agencies and lack of access to health care, education, and decent livelihoods,” said Zohra Yusuf, an HRCP council member.
The HRCP wants Islamabad to accede to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol and adopt national legislation to fulfill the obligations outlined in these international agreements.
“The state should ease cumbersome documentation requirements, provide more dignified living situations, and make every effort to provide a safer, more inclusive environment,” Yusuf said.
But officials in Islamabad see the issue very differently.
As the chief commissioner for Afghan refugees in Pakistan’s States and Frontier Regions Ministry, Muhammad Abbas Khan oversees all aspects of Afghan exiles in Pakistan. In written comments to RFE/RL, he argued that Islamabad cannot grant citizenship to Afghans born in Pakistan because it will open the door to many among the more than 4.3 million Afghans who have already returned to their country from Pakistani during the past four decades.
“Such facility could be exploited and would open yet another floodgate for large numbers of individuals, claiming their birth in Pakistan on forged documents,” Khan said. “Thus leading to a complex, uncontrollable, and unmanageable situation.”
Most Afghan refugees in Pakistan are ethnic Pashtuns, who are the second-largest ethnic group in the country of some 231 million people. In some regions their presence has become part of the local ethnic competition for power and resources.
“The majority of the newborn Afghans are of Pashtun ethnicity, which, if included in the Pakistani population, may change the delicate demographic balance in the sensitive province of Balochistan,” he said of the long-running political wrangling over the presence of Afghan refugees in the vast region in the southwest that borders Iran and Afghanistan.
The 2017 census in Pakistan showed that Balochistan’s Baloch population had shrunk from 61 percent to 55 percent compared to 1998.
The Pashtun population, on the other hand, had increased. In the ensuing years, Islamabad canceled the citizenship of 200,000 people, alleging that Afghan refugees had illegally obtained Pakistani IDs.
The treatment of Afghan refugees remains a pressing concern for human rights watchdogs.
Dinushika Dissanayake, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for South Asia, says that the Afghan refugees’ ambiguous legal status in Pakistan and arduous asylum or third-country relocation processes have made them even more vulnerable.
“They are caught in an impossible situation from which there is no escape,” she said.