Quetta: Refugee schools and colleges are shutting down in Balochistan owing to the repatriation of thousands of Afghan students to Afghanistan.

Refugee students studying in various colleges and universities are leaving their education without completing degrees, demanding certificates instead of degrees. They are also asking for transcripts to prove they have studied in Pakistan so they could continue education in Afghanistan.

Qari Naqeebullah, a principal at the Ahmed Shah Baba High School Quetta and a member of Afghan Private Schools Association in Balochistan, told News Lens Pakistan that 44,000 Afghan students study in 98 schools and 32 colleges in the province. The figures, according to Naqeebullah, have been gathered by the Afghan Private Schools Association.

“The majority of these schools and colleges face closure as fifty percent of their students have left school due to crackdown on refugees,” said Naqeebullah, who like most Afghans go by one name.

He said the government had imposed strict sanctions on movement of refugees including random checks and search in the streets, resulting in harassment of refugees at the hands of police. “Students cannot go to school in the environment of fear.”

Naqeebullah said given the situation, Afghan students and teachers were opting to discontinue working and studying in the province. However, he said, for students this option posed a dilemma: those who wanted to return to Afghanistan would be wasting one year of education.

In Balochistan, he said, the academic year starts in March whereas in Afghanistan the academic year usually starts at the end of November. This means students leaving before or after November would not be able to get admission in Afghanistan’s schools to start a new academic year.

Even though the deadline for repatriation of refugees has been extended a number of times in recent months and years, the Pakistan government has toughened its stance on Afghan refugees as relations between the neighbouring countries have worsened among mutual acrimony and allegations of supporting terrorist groups active in the region.

After the December 2014 attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar in which 147 students were killed, the government decided to repatriate Afghan refugees under the 20-point National Action Plan (NAP) against terrorism. The authorities in Pakistan believe that terrorists of Afghan origin can easily hide among the refugee population in Pakistan. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan’s militants who masterminded the attack on the school in Peshawar are based in Afghanistan that for its part blames Pakistan for harbouring and supporting the Afghan Taliban waging an insurgency against the Afghan state.

Afghan refugees first came to Pakistan in the early eighties after the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. During the three decades of their stay in Pakistan – mainly in the border provinces of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and in the port city of Karachi – the country has hosted close to 4m refugees at different times.

A United Nations High Commission for Refugees fact sheet says Pakistan has been host to one of the world’s largest refugee populations for more than 27 years. The country is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol, says the fact sheet, but “Pakistan has generally respected the principles of international protection.” Since March 2002, nearly 4.1 million Afghans have repatriated with UNHCR’s assistance. However, some 1.45 million registered Afghans remain in Pakistan.

Naqeebullah said after migration to Pakistan, thousands of young Afghans had been out of school for a long time due to the conflict in Afghanistan. “Educating a school-age refugee was a major problem. Over the years, Pakistan allowed refugee children to attend local schools and colleges. Alongside this, hundreds of private schools and colleges were established for Afghan refugees in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.”

March 2017, was the deadline set by the Government of Pakistan for the repatriation of refugees.

Arsalan Khan, a 14-year-old Afghan student at Ahmed Shah Baba High School Quetta, says: “I am a Pakistani by birth but my parents have no legal documents. My father has decided to leave Pakistan fearing an arrest. I believe Pakistan is my country and it is painful for me to leave my school, my city and country. I don’t see any future in Afghanistan because of the ongoing war. Returning to Afghanistan would kill my dreams.”

Mirwais Afghan, a refugee student at Balochistan University of Information Technology, Engineering and Management Sciences (BUITEMS), says according to the international Refugee Law, Afghans have the same rights as Pakistani students. But for the last two years, said Afghan, they have been facing discrimination from students and teachers in the school.

“There is restriction on admission of Afghan students in major government and private education institutions,” says Afghan, whose name has been changed to protect his identity.

Maqsood Ahmed, father of a refugee student, migrated to Quetta from Afghanistan in 1985. He got education there and became a teacher. In Quetta, he married a Pakistani woman and they have a child.

“We have no shelter or work in Afghanistan,” said Ahmad. “We would become refugees again in Afghanistan. Our children need education. One generation of Afghans was deprived of education during the civil war, another in the War on Terror and a third is being deprived due to repatriation.”

Bashir Khan, an executive member of the Afghan Students’ Union in Quetta, said refugee students cannot continue academic activities in government and private educational institutions out of fear and legal restrictions. On the other hand, he said, the Afghan education system would not able to accommodate a huge number of returnee students. He said Pakistan should allow Afghan students to complete their education.

“The majority of refugees who have completed their education here and returned to Afghanistan have filled key positions in the government sector and are playing a vital role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan,” Khan said. “If these students left without completing their education, it will have a negative impact on the future of Afghanistan.”

In October 2016, Pakistan pledged a further $500 million to help reconstruct Afghanistan, in addition to an existing $500 million package on health, education and infrastructure that includes a 400-bed hospital in Kabul and more than 2000 scholarships for Afghan students. However, the Afghan students in Balochistan say the hate-campaign against Afghans on social media after the APS attack, December 2014, has created an environment of intolerance and discrimination against them.

“Social media users blame Afghan refugees for incidents of terror in Pakistan,” said Mirwais Afghan, the student at BUITEMS. “This has had a negative impression on people in general. They now view us with suspicion and have turned intolerant towards us.”

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