Afghan refugees in Pakistan | Credit: Picture-alliance/Anadolu Agency/S.Ahmad
Afghan refugees in Pakistan | Credit: Picture-alliance/Anadolu Agency/S.Ahmad

Over 4 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran are not allowed to cast their votes in the upcoming Afghan parliamentary election. The refugees fear the next legislative body won't protect their interests.

Afghan refugees living in Iran and Pakistan continue to face an uncertain future, and the upcoming parliamentary election on October 20 doesn't seem to solve any of their problems.

As these refugees are not allowed to vote in the polls, they feel they will have no influence over the legislators in the next parliament.

There is little incentive for these people to return to their homeland. A lack of security in Afghanistan and Kabul's reluctance to support them hinder their return.

Authorities in Islamabad and Tehran urge the Afghan government to take back refugees, as they consider them a burden on their economy. But many of these refugees have been living in the neighboring countries for decades and despite various problems in the host nations, Iran and Pakistan are still a better option for them.

Read more: Iran lauded by UN for hosting refugees

"The government should make sure that we can build our lives if we return to Afghanistan. They should also make sure that we feel part of Afghan society," Malik Matiullah, a Pakistan-based Afghan, told DW.

"And for that we need a government that is willing to work for us and pass legislation that will protect our interests," he added.

According to the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations, over 6 million Afghans live abroad, with a vast majority of them residing in Iran and Pakistan.

Not a priority for Kabul

In 2004, over two million Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan voted in the presidential election. Since then, the refugee community has not been included in any Afghan election.

On October 20, 2,565 candidates will compete for 249 seats in the Afghan parliament.

But Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC) decided not to allow refugees in Iran and Pakistan to participate in the polls.

IEC officials say the government did not provide them with sufficient resources to organize the refugee vote.

"Our job is the management of the elections according to the resources available to us […] the main reason we cannot hold the vote in Pakistan and Iran is that we were not provided with enough resources," IEC spokesman Zabi Sadat told media.

But experts say the refugee vote wouldn't have been possible even if the IEC had adequate resources. With a number of security challenges and rising political tensions in the country, refugees in Iran and Pakistan are not on the government's priority list.

"The government should have made sure the participation of all Afghans in the elections, but sadly the refugees are not a priority for anyone," Sughra Saadat, a spokesperson for the Transparent Election Foundation (TEFA), told DW.

A trial run

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan recently announced that his government would grant citizenship to Afghans that were born in Pakistan. But experts say it won't be easy for the new premier to implement this plan.

Iran, on the other hand, continues to deport thousands of Afghan refugees and has not announced any long-term plans for them.

"The only way to end this uncertainty is if Afghan refugees can vote so that the politicians will pay attention to their demands," Saadat said.

Pakistan-based Afghan refugee Matiullah said he had hoped their involvement in Afghanistan's politics would increase with time, but it didn't. "We feel neglected. It seems that nobody is interested in us," he said.

The October 20 parliamentary election is seen as a trail run for next year's crucial presidential vote. IEC officials say they are hopeful that Afghan refugees living in Iran and Pakistan can vote next year.

"We are committed to ensuring their participation in the presidential polls. We will push for it," IEC spokesman Zabi Sadat said.

Authors:  Riaz Sayed, Ahmad Khalid Hakim

First published: October 11, 2018

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