Sharbat Gula: the icon of the plight of Afghan refugees


Any discourse about the deportation of the famed Nat Geo girl Sharbat Gula is unsettling, and those who vociferously call for it should rethink their position. However, amidst all of this is good news: according to a government official, Sharbat Gula will not be deported and work by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government to implement the court decision to deport her has been stopped. This comes after chairman of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Imran Khan through Twitter requested the chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to not deport her on “humanitarian/compassionate” grounds. This is a good change from all the rancour that usually comes from Khan, and he should use his government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to improve the plight of Afghan refugees and facilitate their gradual repatriation.
Sharbat Gula became the poster girl for Afghan refugees when in 1984 her picture was taken in an Afghan refugee camp in Peshawar by a National Geographic photographer. Her age at that time is estimated to be 12 years. This means that Gula has spent most of her life in Pakistan, and that too in adverse conditions. According to her lawyer, her family is dependent on her meagre income, and she also suffers from Hepatitis C. However, despite all the time spent in Pakistan, she had to get a forged Computerised National Identity Card, and this was the reason behind her arrest when on October 26 the Federal Investigation Agency took her into custody. Later an anti-corruption entity ordered her deportation along with a 15-day sentence and a fine of Rs 110,000.
Sharbat Gula’s case reveals the failings of Pakistan government vis-à-vis the handling of the Afghan refugee crisis. In the absence of a well-designed system of rehabilitation and reintegration, poor Afghan refugees like Gula have had to find illicit ways of obtaining official certification. And this further exacerbates the issue of mismanagement of Afghan refugees as without information of the identity and numbers of Afghan refugees in different parts of the country, it is next to impossible to devise an effective policy framework for both their integration into Pakistani society and their gradual repatriation.
It is surely is puzzling as when Afghan refugees first started pouring in Pakistan, no long-term plan was devised to manage the in-flow. By its very definition, a refugee is not someone who comes for a small period of time, and government should have shown the foresight to, from the start, work on making them productive members of Pakistani society. Instead of relegating them to inadequately equipped refugee camps, government itself made these refugees susceptible to crime, and made the camps fertile grounds for recruitments into extremist outfits.
The apathy of government towards the plight of Afghan refugees in the past can only be contrasted with the urgency with which their repatriation is now being considered. Informed by the imperatives of exigencies of the fight against terrorism, the work on repatriation of Afghan refugees is quickly being undertaken. Amidst all this, in popular culture stereotypical ideas of Afghan refugees harming Pakistani society, perpetrating terrorism, and leeching off its resources is being perpetuated, and this is naturally resulting in their demonisation. Not only is this wrong on a moral level, but even from an operational point of view, the way this is being speedily done risks jeopardising all that Pakistan has done for the Afghan refugees for the past 30 years. Afghanistan is still a country that is plagued with violence, and forcefully sending back millions who have worked in Pakistan for years will be a great travesty of justice. And considering the porous Pakistan-Afghanistan border, keeping them in Afghanistan would be an even bigger challenge.
Only a gradual repatriation scheme, which would also include the reintegration of those who wish to stay in Pakistan, can be a workable solution to the Afghan refugee crisis, and it would do well for government to consider a solution along these lines.