Shoaib Rahim is a Toronto-based associate professor at the American University of Afghanistan who served as the acting and deputy mayor of Kabul from 2016 to 2019. He also lectured at University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.
My life’s journey brought me across an ocean to Canada last year, where I was issued permanent residency. Now, I am nearly halfway toward becoming a Canadian. But it is not lost on me that, despite cultural, linguistic and religious commonalities, I had no such path to naturalization after a decade of living in Afghanistan’s neighbour, Pakistan, during the Soviet invasion and war that began in 1979, nor in Iran, just to the west, where my family lived for four years during the first Taliban rule in the 1990s.
An estimated 3.6 million Afghans live in Pakistan, with a substantial number from eastern and southern Afghanistan. They mostly speak Pashto, are almost entirely Muslim and share a common history with Pakistanis, with many even sharing family ties from before Partition. Over the course of multiple large waves of migration that began in 1979, many Afghans in Pakistan have learned Urdu, formed families, and raised children who have never known life in Afghanistan. Many have established successful businesses, creating jobs and contributing to local economies.
But while many Pakistanis have been welcoming and generous to a people with whom they empathize, their government has systemically put paths to citizenship, and the basic legal protections that come with it, out of reach for Afghans. Islamabad, which once viewed Afghan migrants as a means to extract more funding from donor agencies and western capitals, now blames them for unemployment while pushing outdated narratives that they pose safety and national security risks. This fear-mongering has led to threats, intimidation and yet more undignified treatment.
Worse, in October, Pakistan’s government gave the estimated 1.7 million undocumented Afghans fewer than 30 days to return to Afghanistan or face deportation. That deadline passed last week, and now, even Afghans waiting for resettlement, those born in Pakistan and those with proper documentation are reportedly being caught up in the mass expulsion.
Afghans in Iran, meanwhile, almost entirely speak Farsi and many are Shia Muslims, sharing a love for Rumi’s poetry and a civilizational identity – yet the situation there is even worse. Even if Afghans are born in Iran, they are typically not given permanent residency; recently, nationality has been offered only to those who are willing to serve in the Islamic republic’s regional proxy wars. Instead, Afghans face xenophobia and outright racism in Iran, which seem to serve the populist narratives of the country’s political class. Until 2015, Afghan children didn’t even have the right to education. Now, Tehran is also promising to deport the 5 million Afghans it claims are living in Iran “illegally.”
So we must ask: despite the heritage shared by these communities and their host countries, why is there no legal path to naturalization available to Afghans? Is it too much to ask for the same treatment that Iran’s and Pakistan’s citizens ask of other countries elsewhere?
After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, many returned to Afghanistan, in the hopes of writing a new chapter for their country. Young people went to Afghanistan for the first time to discover and shape what it means to be from there, and worked to lay a better foundation for its growth and prosperity. Boys who learned cricket in Pakistan’s refugee camps formed a formidable national Afghan team that defeated Pakistan’s own mighty team in the World Cup last month. So clearly, there is potential in these communities. But the return of the Taliban prompted another massive exodus, and now Afghanistan is mired in a humanitarian crisis, made even worse by years-long drought and multiple earthquakes last month. This is the dire situation that Pakistan and Iran are sending Afghans to.
What’s more, those two countries played a direct role in the instability and chaos in Afghanistan by funding militancy and insurgency. The Taliban’s return in 2021 would not have been possible without the support, both direct and indirect, of the region at large, which sought to oust U.S. and NATO presence at any cost. Unfortunately, the price was paid by the people of Afghanistan, who are now ruled by a group that seems barely affected by the human suffering it is wreaking through tyranny and incompetence.
The moral position is for Iran and Pakistan to offer Afghans – people with whom they have so much in common – a meaningful route to the same protections owed to any of their citizens. Instead, these so-called neighbours are abdicating their responsibility toward the millions of people displaced over decades of conflicts they have, at least in part, inflamed. It is a great shame.