PESHAWAR: Businesses catering to the considerable Afghan refugee population in this provincial capital have seen a sharp decline in their profits since the gruesome terrorist attack on the Army Public School (APS) that killed 134 children and 16 staff members on December 16, 2014.
In the wake of that attack, the government launched a serious drive to forcefully repatriate illegal Afghan refugees to their war ravaged homeland. Under the federal government’s National Action Plan to counter terrorism, repatriation of illegal refugees began in earnest, while registered refugees were given until December this year to pack up and leave.
Hailing from Kurram agency, Nabi Khan runs a second-hand clothes shop in Peshawar’s Board Bazaar, a business hub for Afghans. His trade has been adversely affected due to the ongoing repatriation of refugees as, according to him, more than 70 percent of his customers used to be Afghans.
Earning anywhere from Rs.5,000 to 6,000 in the good old days, his margin has now fallen to around Rs.1,500 a day. Nabi puts the blame for his loss squarely on the accelerated repatriation process.
Talking to this scribe, he informed that his business witnessed a sharp decrease in Afghan customers after the APS attack. “Those refugees who don’t have a legal resident card dare not come out of their homes for fear of being arrested,” he explained.
According to a report released by the United Nations Higher Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in January this year, Pakistan still hosts 1.5 million refugees, nearly all of them Afghans. Out of these, 7,000 are asylum seekers. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa alone hosts around a million refugees, residing either in refugee camps or urban and rural population centres of the province.
The report adds that the UNHCR has facilitated return of 3.8 million registered Afghan refugees since 2002. Most of these refugees fled Afghanistan during the war of the 1980s and set up businesses in Peshawar city.
Some of the children born to these refugees in Pakistan have not even seen their homeland. “I have three children, all receiving education in Peshawar, and they have never been to Afghanistan,” stated an Afghan, Ali Muhammad.
Gul Muhammad is another businessman running his shop of traditional Afghan clothes in the same Board Bazaar situated around 200 metres north of the famous Islamia College. Gul is worried since all his customers are Afghans. “I earn Rs.500 a day now,” he said, adding that he used to earn about Rs.5, 000 a day previously.
He said the police had launched a crackdown against unregistered Afghan refugees and that was why most of them preferred to stay home to avoid deportation. This had resulted in his clientele plummeting, he added.
Situated about a kilometre to the east of Bacha Khan International Airport is Saddar Bazaar, the trade hub of the provincial metropolis. According to the president of the Saddar Bazaar traders union, Shaukatullah, 30 to 35 percent of the traders there are Afghans, who have set up businesses worth million of rupees.
Shaukatullah is of the opinion that although the repatriation of Afghan refugees would have adverse effects on the market, it would eventually produce space for local traders. He said that shop rental values would also decrease as Afghans return home.
A large number of Afghan refugees also live in the upscale Hayatabad town of Peshawar, renting houses from Rs.15,000 to 35,000 a month. Here as well, the repatriation drive has resulted in lowering of rental values. Those in the real estate business expressed disapproval of their falling incomes as the locals do not pay such high rents.
Mumtaz Khan, who works with rentals in Hayatabad, told this scribe that his community’s income had been falling with each passing day as a large number of refugees had vacated their houses to leave for Afghanistan. “The houses that we rented to Afghans for Rs.15, 000 are now going for Rs.9, 000 to 12,000 to the locals,” he complained.