Afghan Migrants 2_20231115_142719_0000

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If one were to take a look at social media such as Twitter (X), one might get the impression that Pakistanis are somewhat opposed to the repatriation of the Afghan migrants, but is this really true? A snap poll conducted by Gallup, an independent survey body, gives much weight to the contrary, with more than 84% of Pakistanis polled stating that they are vigorously in favor of the repatriation of Afghans back to their country. In Gallup’s words, “a resounding 84% of respondents expressed strong approval of the government’s policy, considering it a commendable decision.” On the question of letting new refugees from Afghanistan in, 73% of respondents believed that the Pakistani government should prohibit their entry, with only 19% supporting their admission. In such cases where Afghan refugees made a request to stay on in Pakistan, only 42% of respondents believed that the government should permit their stay and more (46%) favored rejecting such requests.

Why might the Pakistanis hold such views? An overwhelming 64% of Gallup respondents believed that repatriating Afghans would enhance domestic peace and order. So it is partially a public security issue. However, it is also an economic issue, since 55% of participants believed that the return of Afghan refugees would positively impact the Pakistani economy, and only 22% believed it would have a negative impact. I wish to discuss this economic aspect and enumerate, in-line with my previous discussion, at least eleven different benefits that would accrue to the Pakistani economy pursuant to the repatriation of the migrants, as presented in Table 1.

Table 1: Areas of Economic Benefit from Afghan Forced Repatriation

FactorExplanation
Drug ProblemIllicit substances began flooding Pakistan after the Soviet invasion, and have remained a serious socioeconomic concern as the numbers of addicts and violent recidivists has risen. The primary economic damage from illicit substances is in (1) the destruction of households in the social fabric, (2) the withdrawal of able-bodied individuals into a defunct condition, (3) the criminality of desperate addicts, and (4) the use of narco-trafficking in anti-state / terrorist activity. There are at least 7-8 million addicts in Pakistan as per a study.  
Crime problemVarious estimates of criminality in cities such as Peshawar attribute something like half of the problem of crime to the migrants. Crime leads to adverse economic outcomes (seizures of assets, violence, psychological disruption, property damage). Reducing migrant crime by reducing migrant criminals is necessary.
Environment problemEnvironmental degradation through urban and semi-urban sprawl and enchroachment, as well as through unregulated commercial activities, poses a significant economic burden, by disrupting standardized development systems and siphoning environmental/economic resources towards haphazard ends. Restoring  environmental quality for economic renewal must be a priority after the migrants are evacuated.  
Terrorism problemThe economic fallout from terrorism has amounted to the tens of billions of dollars at a minimum, and the post-2021 surge in terror activity through Afghanistan has raised the same agitation and economic disruption risks that it did two decades ago. This is a foremost consideration in the government’s mind, and the expulsion of migrants will coincide with efforts to curb terrorism
Housing problemAt both the level of rental and of purchase, illegal migrants have driven-up prices for locals, and they have crowded out the already short supply in cities. The illegal migrants’  demand for housing has made it much more difficult for locals to access housing in the cities. Their evictions will therefore ease the housing supply constraint in both rental and purchase markets.  
Currency problemThe weakening rupee can partially be explained by unchecked and unaccounted flows, manipulation by dealers, as well as hoarding and smuggling issues. This problem in particular has been meaningfully and boldly addressed by the government, much to their credit. The expulsions will reduce the currency arbitrage that some of these migrants have been very active in perpetuating.
Jobs problemIllegal migrant labor has undercut local wages over the years and taken daily-wager opportunities away from the locals, adversely affecting their livelihoods. Pakistan and Afghanistan are not complementary economies, both have a large underclass of daily laborers. In Pakistan, wage bargaining-power of the daily wagers will be stronger once illegal migrants are expelled.  
Substandad goods problemLow-quality goods, which when brought in through smuggling, put consumers at risk with substandard quality of ingredients and processes. This has an economic impact at the consumer level.
Disease problemAfghan migrants are a vector for various dangerous pathogens such as leishmaniasis and polio, with the latter having been eradicated elsewhere which still continues to persist in the wild strain along the border as a rare case in the world. The incapacitation caused by such diseases decimates local productivity, and this will be eased considerably after their expulsion.
Healthcare burdenIn the public hospital, dispensary, and medical systems, the Afghan migrants occupy a disproportionate usage of public healthcare facilities relative to their demographic size in various parts of the country.
Weakened passportOne of the primary reasons that travel restrictions are so stringent on Pakistani passports is the identification problem for immigration authorities abroad on false and/or dubious documents. This creates a massive problem both for Pakistanis traveling abroad and for immigration authorities.
Energy theftAfghan migrants engage in hefty aggregate electricity theft in Karachi and other areas of their population concentration, which exacerbates the power crisis in Pakistan due to the ballooning liabilities of the utility companies.

What would the impact be on Pakistan if a drug problem, crime problem, environment problem, terrorism problem, housing problem, jobs problem, currency problem, substandard goods problem, disease problem, false travel documents problem, and healthcare burden problem could all be addressed by a single policy decision? The economic impact of each factor would be significant, and indeed, addressing any single one of these issues alone would help improve the economic condition of the local people. That is the power of the government’s decision to make a bold and well-deliberated move, after 40 years of having opened our doors and hearts to a people who have given scant in return but contempt and ingratitude. A larger quantitative study is warranted regarding each of the points in Table 1, with the aggregation of these factors (and still others) giving an indication of the economic dividends of relinquishing the burden of the Afghan migrants, who must go and build their own country now. This is a viscerally and deeply understood sentiment in Pakistan, as the Gallup poll shows.

One would be amiss in listening to the Twitterati rant about this widely-supported decision.

But why have the Twitterati been so active on this issue? What is it that has led them towards open denouncement of that which is supported by the silent majority? There are at least four different motives. The first is the genuine humanitarian concern for the lives of the Afghans, who face the harshness of winter and the equal harshness of the Taliban, with its obscurantist strictures on girls’ education and on other social issues. It is difficult to say whether the bleakness of winter, the bleakness of the Afghan economy, or the bleakness of Taliban mindsets are worse, as they run for an equal contention. Therefore, there is this genuine humanitarian concern found among some detractors, which is noble and which echoes the generous spirit of a country that let the Afghan  migrants come in the first place.

The second and more problematic issue is that of virtue signaling, which is to say, posting sympathy online to signal to a specific audience one’s supposed virtuosity. Virtue-signaling is a hollow exercise for those who understand the views of the masses. The third reason is because of the absorption of Western liberal/left discourses around refugees, which do not apply socially, economically, or politically to our local context. If Germany accepts Syrian refugees, it is because it has a declining birth rate, aging population, high labor productivity, an industrialized economy and high per-capita GDP, mass literacy, and 20th-century Aryan guilt. Do any of these things apply to Pakistan vis-a-vis Afghanistan? No, and sadly, Pakistan has its own teeming masses of poor, an overpopulation problem, a premature deindustrialization, a low (even declining) GDP per capita, and a record of supporting several millions of refugees for 40+ years. So Western left/liberal concoctions are supremely inappropriate for our indigenous context. Fourth, there are also Afghani disinformation vehicles masquerading as Pakistani accounts, attempting to muddy the waters when they cannot muddy Pakistan’s resolve. But the people of Pakistan, the great silent majority, overwhelmingly support the repatriation of Afghans, and Twitter-warlords cannot talk around that fact.

Dr. Usman W. Chohan is Advisor (Economic Affairs and National Development) at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies, Islamabad, Pakistan. He can be reached at cass.thinkers@casstt.com

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