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Disenfranchised refugees

Shamil Shams, Faridullah Khan in PeshawarApril 3, 2014

Thousands of Afghan refugees living in Pakistan won't be able to cast their votes in their country's presidential election due to inadequate polling arrangements. Will it have an impact on the outcome of the poll?

Afghan refugees enter Pakistan across the Torkham border carrying their meagre belongings (Photo: TANVEER MUGHAL/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: Tanveer Mughal/AFP/Getty Images)

Afghans are excited about the upcoming presidential poll. For the first time in history the war-torn country will see the transfer of power from one elected president to another. But for Afghan refugees living in Pakistan, the April 5 election will just be another ordinary day as they have been officially disenfranchised. The Afghan election commission says it does not have sufficient resources to make proper polling arrangements for the Pakistani Afghans, most of whom dwell in the refugee camps along the Pakistani-Afghan border.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, there are around 2.6 million registered Afghans in Pakistan, most of whom had migrated to the neighboring Islamic republic during the 1980s Afghan war against the Soviet forces. After the US invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent toppling of the Islamist Taliban government in 2001, many Afghans moved back to their homeland. A large number, however, preferred to stay back in Pakistan.

Afghanistan allowed its citizens in Pakistan to vote in the 2004 presidential vote, but in the 2009 election, they were excluded due to security risks. Incumbent Afghan President Hamid Karzai was successful in both elections.

Men install a campaign banner of Afghan presidential candidate Gul Agha Sherzai during the second day of the presidential election campaign in Jalalabad Province February 3, 2014 (Photo: REUTERS/Parwiz)
Afghan elections are critical for political stability, say expertsImage: Reuters

There are eight candidates running for president with former government ministers Abdullah Abdullah, Zalmai Rasool and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai seen as front-runners. The Afghan constitution bars Karzai from seeking a third term. Thirty-two million people live in the South Asian country; however, only 12 million are eligible to cast votes.

Pakistani authorities say it is a mere excuse that it was not logistically possible to allow Afghan refugees to vote. "We can make all the arrangements for Afghans residing in our country," Shah Farman, the information minister of Pakistan's northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, told DW, adding that it would be the prerogative of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's central government now to take up this issue with Kabul.

Consolidation of democracy

Some observers say that keeping the Afghan refugees out of the election process is a deliberate attempt by the Afghan government to influence the vote. "There is no peace in the Pashtun-majority areas of Afghanistan, and now the Afghan refugees, the majority of whom are also ethnic Pashtuns, won't have any say in these elections. This means that the new Afghan president won't represent the majority of Afghans," Ameer Ullah, an Afghan expert from Nangarhar, Afghanistan, told DW.

The analyst said international rights organizations should take notice of the situation. "It is strange that the Afghan government places no value on the Afghan refugees' votes. These people are unhappy about it, and think that their participation in the poll could have strengthened Afghanistan and the next government."

Islamabad-based journalist, Irfan Haider, also thinks the Afghan refugees in Pakistan would have contributed to the reinforcement of Afghanistan's nascent democracy. "A large number of Afghans have been residing in Pakistan for many years. The Afghan government could easily manage the election process in Pakistan with the help of UNHCR," Haider told DW.

The journalist regrets that Kabul fails to understand the significance of the refugees' vote. "Many of these people are registered by the UNHCR and have valid documents. These people earn money in Pakistan and send it back to their families, which is important for the development of their country. Afghan authorities should have valued these people."

Security risks

Analysts say that security risks might be the reason behind the Afghan government's reluctance to bring the refugees into the electoral process. The Taliban, which view the poll as a continuation of a US-installed system, have openly threatened to sabotage the vote. There have been a series of militant attacks in Kabul, including one on the offices of the Afghan election commission.

Symbolbild Afghan terror
Al Qaeda and the Taliban have recruited thousands of warriors from the refugee camps in PakistanImage: Reza/webistan.com

"The militant groups want to stop Afghans from participating in the election, but there has been no threat for Afghan refugees in Pakistan. They could easily vote," Haider said, adding that the international community should support the democratic process in Afghanistan by involving the Afghan refugees.

Experts warn that the disenfranchisement of Afghan refugees cold also be a risky affair. They say that these people have suffered wars and homelessness for decades and by banishing them from the political process the Afghan government may be pushing them to the ranks of extremists.