Why Would Pakistan Grant Citizenship to 1.5 Million Refugees?

Most of the stories you read about refugees these days involve governments struggling to support them or trying to manage popular backlashes against them. In some cases, they involve active efforts to strip them of their rights. So it was something of a surprise when Pakistan’s newly elected Prime Minister Imran Khan announced over the weekend that he wants to grant citizenship to some 1.5 million Afghan refugees living in his country.


By way of background: Pakistan is home to the world’s second largest refugee population—many of whom fled neighboring Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion of their country in 1979, or after the US-led invasion in 2001. Those people, and their descendants, are all considered refugees under international law and Islamabad’s position until now has been: they have to go home.

Why is Khan taking this step now? Whatever Mr. Khan’s benevolent motivations might be, his proposal also carries a political calculation. In Pakistan’s elections earlier this year, members of the Pashtun ethnic group voted in large numbers for Mr. Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Party (PTI), sweeping him to power. As it happens, a majority of the Afghan refugees in Pakistan are Pashtuns, meaning that integrating them—by issuing government IDs and access to social services—could help to shore up, and even expand, his political base.

Will Pakistan’s all-powerful military, which holds sway over immigration policy, allow this? The generals have long favored refugees' repatriation to Afghanistan, seeing them as a security threat. And in the past they have reportedly used them as a bargaining chip with Kabul and Washington, knowing that dumping 1.5 million people in a weak state like Afghanistan could trigger a humanitarian and political crisis for the US-backed government there. Just days ago, Pakistan’s foreign minister spoke in Kabul of plans for an orderly repatriation. Khan’s proposal now sets up a big fight.

But at a moment when backlashes against immigrants are becoming more common, Khan’s words offered a stark contrast to the current zeitgeist: “Why are they treated without dignity?” he asked. “They are humans, how have we deprived them for 30-40 years?”

In 2012, the United States created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to protect these young people from being deported. Yet just five years later, the program was rescinded, putting close to 700,000 DACA recipients at risk of being banished from the only home they've ever known. More than five dozen of these DACA recipients at risk are Microsoft employees. These young people contribute to the company and serve its customers. They help create products, secure services, and manage finances. And like so many young people across our nation, they dream of making an honest living and a real difference in the communities in which they reside. Yet they now live in uncertainty.

Microsoft has told its Dreamers that it will stand up for them along with all the nation's DACA recipients. It will represent them in court and litigate on their behalf. That's why Microsoft joined Princeton University and Princeton student Maria De La Cruz Perales Sanchez to file one of the three cases challenging the DACA rescission that was heard on Nov. 12 by the United States Supreme Court.

Read more on Microsoft On The Issues.

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