Refugee Cities: How Afghans Changed Urban Pakistan

Peter Admirand

Whether from wars, climate change, unemployment, discrimination, or other means of violence and disaster, 110 million people are displaced from where they call home.1 UNHCR Staff, “UNHCR’s Grandi: 110 million displaced is an indictment on our world.” UNHCR. June 14, 2023, Such displacements are often never rectified, or the individuals and groups are initially welcomed into one new land but soon lose their status and find themselves in-between and nowhere, neither here nor there. Such is certainly the injustice faced by millions of Afghans who have lived, studied, worked, had families, and started businesses in Pakistan only to find themselves caught between both worlds and now threatened or deported.

There are roughly 4 million Afghans in Pakistan, and as I write in early November 2023, Pakistan has instituted the forced expulsion of nearly 1.4 million Afghans, so-called “undocumented people”, from its borders. Many are without proper food and water, have only known life within Pakistan, or may be at risk of violence or death if sent back to Afghanistan, ruled by the Taliban since the West’s withdrawal in August of 2021.2 Ishaan Tharoor, “Pakistan carries out a mass expulsion.” The Washington Post. November 6, 2023, Of course, this is not just a matter between two countries but is inextricably linked to the fluctuating geopolitical sphere, and especially how the West, particularly the United States, follows or changes its mind on what is deemed America’s interests. In the 1970s and 1980s, the United States supported and funded mujahidin in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. That war led to millions of Afghans fleeing into Pakistan, and these migrations and displacements continued in the later US War on Terror following the 9/11 attacks and subsequent wars in Afghanistan (and Iraq).

As Sanaa Alimia shows in her fascinating but tragic book, incorporating timely and memorable witness testimony from the displaced and the forgotten, average Afghans in Pakistan have been discriminated against despite their many contributions to Pakistani society and infrastructure. In some cases, they are displaced from cities they helped to build. While the United States and Europe continue to deter so-called unwanted immigrants from their shores, no matter the moral cost,3 See, for example, Sally Hayden, My Fourth Time, We Drowned (London: Fourth Estate, 2023). the majority of displaced people are living in shanty towns and slums in already poor and populous cities and countries. This is also the case in Pakistan with its own high poverty rates. Such is to say, one is tempted in reading the book to blame the Pakistan government and its proxies, but the web of culpability also leads to Western complicity and indifference at the plight of the poor generally, both within its borders, and especially beyond.

Refugee Cities is structured into three parts consisting of five main chapters and an introduction and conclusion. Comprised of field work from 2010 to 2018 and almost 500 semi-structured interviews (p. 11), it is both a personal and well-documented analysis of the terrain of migration, displacement, imagined communities, and “new urban identities” (p. 5). As noted, witness testimony brings the statistics to life and paints a clear and unvarnished picture of the injustice and suffering these poor, often stateless people endure. Such witnessing is important, especially as Alimia identifies herself (or is identified) as a “woman, Pakistani (Kasmiri-Punjabi), East African-Yemeni Indian, Muslim, born and raised in the UK and sometimes Pakistan” (p. 12), thus reaching across ethnonational and class divides to give a voice to the downtrodden. As Bilqis, a vocal female resident of the Pakistani-majority settlement of Ishtiaq Goth, remarked: “What does the government [hukumat] care? We are the poor and for them we are nothing… But this [poverty] is not our doing; it is theirs” (81). While the lives of poor Afghani people in Pakistan might be even more tenuous, they all “shared a precarious existence” (p. 63).

After a helpful historical overview of the intertwined histories of Afghanistan and Pakistan, especially through British colonialism and how and why millions of Afghans sought a temporary (or permanent) home in Pakistan, Chapters 2, 3, and 4 “reconstruct microhistories of low-income urban neighborhoods on the outskirts of Karachi and Peshawar” (p. 13). Chapter 5 highlights how the Pakistani government, especially through heightened surveillance, changing laws, and the use of micro-chipped identity cards, seeks to control and limit the movement of Afghan-identified people (even if some of these individuals consider themselves Pakistani). The pictures depicted show a resilient but harassed people trying to form a home but stymied by statelessness; they also show  a government happy to use their bodies to build new cities but otherwise unbothered by their daily struggles for survival or even the economic success some find. Sanitation, clean water, electricity, basic shelter, and access to fair labor are beyond the hopes of many. As Alimia writes: “Residents in Camp-e-Marwarid complained that the water in the area was not safe and was unclean. ‘Look at the color!’” She adds that 30,000 Karachites, including 20,000 children, die every year from dirty water (p. 56). Regarding four children who recently died from such inhumane conditions, one camp resident, Haji Mahfuz, told Alimia: “You might wonder, what type of parents would let their children bathe in dirty water? But what choice did they have?” (p. 57).

Alimia opens Chapter 2 with a harrowing account: “The death of Summaiya was on everyone’s minds” (p. 35). Summaiya was about to go into labor and was bleeding dangerously. She needed to get to a hospital, but there were no nearby medical facilities or they cost too much, and access was difficult anyway. She and the baby died in the backseat of the taxi. “For women who were pregnant in Camp-e-Mariwald,” Alimia was told, “prayers are their only hope” (p. 36). And while such stories are only known because of the work done by NGOs or academics like Alimia, the latest technological surveillance coexists uncomfortably with such barbaric neglect and treatment. And so, on the one hand, people live without clean water, but, on the other hand, they are given microchipped identity cards so they can be tracked and monitored.

This is the new reality and another burden the poor must endure. And for Afghans in Pakistan, they are always the scapegoat or blamed if any violence erupts. “They [the police] always come for us [Afghan]. Every single day. They say we should go back.” Asfandyar, a father of two sons, was exasperated with their harassment. And as Ilyas, one of Asfandyar’s sons told Alimia: “Peshawar is my home. It is all I know. We have nothing in Afghanistan. No land, no family, no one” (p. 137). The forced displacements, meanwhile, continue not just in Pakistan or war zones like Gaza, but likely where many of you are reading this on the borders of Europe and North America, too.