Caught Between Borders: Identity Crises

by Madeeha Ansari

AS part of a global research project on forced migration, I was able to listen closely to the stories of children who had perhaps one, perhaps two parents of Afghan origin, and whose only memories were of life in Pakistan. The most powerful, common motif reverberating through their experiences was: ‘I was born here’.

In September 2023, an announcement was made giving undocumented families and individuals of Afghan origin a deadline of Nov 1 to exit the country. This impacts an estimated 1.7 million people, and includes communities that have experienced protracted displacement since the 1980s. For many, a second and often a third generation of children has grown up in Pakistan. However, without pathways to citizenship, their position has remained insecure — even for registered refugees, Proof of Registration (PoR) or Afghan Citizen cards have been subject to renewal after a certain time period.

What, then, is identity? If identity is a document, then it could be a valuable key opening doors to education, livelihoods, the dream of a future different from that of an uprooted generation. The PoR or Afghan Citizen card fit into some doors, enabling bright-eyed young people to enter formal schools and build, brick by brick, those imagined futures. But identity as a document can be a vanishing key, as many now fear deportation in the second phase of the plan as currently shared.

The fear of repatriation was one reason why some of the most vulnerable communities — often in informal, urban contexts — chose to remain invisible, even if that meant giving up even the most basic rights. There was nothing promised to them, yet they fought to stay — moving multiple times, even from the rubble of bulldozed settlements. Perhaps, then, identity is more than a piece of paper, and has something to do with homes built and rebuilt, relationships forged, children born and raised.

In a parallel reality, children born in Pakistan would have had access to the same kind of birthright citizenship, according to the 1951 Citizenship Act, as those who came as refugees to the country in 1947. They would be able to open bank accounts, own property, enrol in schools with the confidence that comes from a secure national identity. In this alternative vision, they would have the responsibilities that come with citizenship rights, part of a social contract and contributing to a shared and harmonious future.

But our reality is less than utopian, with a crippling economic crisis and worsening security conditions driving both public and policy reactions. One question is whether the sudden exodus of Afghan communities will truly impact, for the better, the fuel prices having a paralytic effect on families in Pakistan — or the rising threat of violence from angered Taliban neighbours.

For the children and families now being sent to holding centres or across the border, the signs are pointing to a humanitarian and “human rights catastrophe”, according to the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. It will be the latest wave of disruption and displacement, this time to a barely post-war pariah country with little international support, and few or no remaining personal networks to moor them. The likely scenario will be the setting up of yet more camps during a harsh winter, with little time to prepare for their arrival and basic survival in terms of food and shelter, let alone livelihoods and education. The journey itself is fraught with physical protection risks for women and children, who are ever the most vulnerable in a crisis. Once there, unless there are provisions for protection, sanitation and hygiene in camp conditions, there will once more not only be risks in terms of disease but also physical and sexual violence.

They were refugees here. And if they go ‘back’ to Afghanistan in this way, they will be refugees there. In the medium term, there are big question marks surrounding livelihoods and education, and whether Afghanistan has the capacity to absorb such a large number of people. For children, sudden and involuntary migration can have a deeply traumatic impact for which there are unlikely to be psychosocial support mechanisms, or the provision of safe and child-friendly spaces that can provide stability. In fact, there is a high likelihood of families relying on negative coping strategies such as early marriage and child labour to survive. Girls are expressing terror at the prospect of losing their chance to go to school, in the only country where female education is banned.

As of Nov 5, an estimated 128,000 people have left via Torkham. While this is a fraction of the intended numbers, there are reports of minors being separated from caregivers, and of Pakistani Pakhtun minors being mistakenly sent across the border. If anything, all this indicates that an undertaking of this magnitude needs more time, careful planning and communication across stakeholders — including governments, UN agencies, civil society and individuals at risk — to ensure that any return is truly what we as a country have for decades promised it will be: voluntary, safe and dignified.

Identity is a tangled mesh of past and present. For third-generation children, growing up in a ‘host’ country means their identities are informed by transmitted memories and culture — but also very much by their lives and experiences in the only home they have known. We owe it to them to consider them, their protection and rights in any next steps, so they can say with pride that they were born in Pakistan.

Acknowledgement: Published in Daily Dawn on Nov 11, 2023



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