Since the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands have sought refuge in neighboring Pakistan | Photo: Sohail Shahzad /EPA-EFE
Since the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands have sought refuge in neighboring Pakistan | Photo: Sohail Shahzad /EPA-EFE

Tenants in Pakistan's capital are complaining that Afghan refugees are pushing up rents. Many of the Afghans say they can't move on because of delays getting visas to Western nations.

With his lease expiring in almost three weeks' time, Qamarul Islam is hunting for a new house to rent in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad.

That's because he can't afford the massive rent hike sought by his landlord, he says.

This story is commonplace in Islamabad. The capital is experiencing an increased demand for lodging that many say is due to of the tens of thousands of Afghan nationals who fled to Pakistan from Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover last year. 

"I rented this two-room place in December 2020 for 55,000 rupees ($250, €249) a month, with a 10% hike midway through the two-year occupancy and hoped for agreement renewal with a rent increase of 10% or so," Qamarul Islam said. 

"But now, the landlord is demanding 20,000 rupees more, which is simply not affordable due to inflation-induced income squeeze. I'm looking for a new dwelling with lower rent," the college teacher told DW at his apartment in an upscale neighborhood.

The 42-year-old, who lives with his wife and three children, says that rent had soared because of the influx of Afghan nationals in recent months.

Looking to the West for asylum or resettlement

After the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, many of the families that had previously worked with US or NATO forces or foreign organizations, and that were unable to evacuated, left the country fearing hostility from their new anti-Western Islamist rulers.

Those who fled included educated and professional men and women.

Many of them reached Islamabad. There, they rented houses, apartments and hotel rooms downtown while applying to Western countries for asylum or resettlement.

Some families with less means ended up camping out near the parliament building and even in a nearby park, but the police drove them away, citing security concerns. These families then moved to low-cost areas in Islamabad as well as the adjoining garrison city of Rawalpindi.

A spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Qaiser Khan Afridi, told DW that the Pakistani government estimates that around 250,000 Afghans have arrived in Pakistan since January 2021. He did recognize, however, that the number could possibly be higher.

Support from overseas relatives

Real estate agents in Islamabad confirmed a rent upsurge. They said many property owners preferred leasing out their houses and apartments to foreigners, including Afghans, as they could earn more that way.

"Most Afghans receive money from their relatives based in the Western countries, so the rent is not an issue for them," said Muhammad Kashif, a property dealer in Islamabad's "G-9/4" sector, where many such families live.

He also said most Pakistanis demanded separate housing units unlike Afghans, who shared places and were ready to pay higher rents.

Islamabad realtor Ramzan Sarfraz also believes that the demand for rental homes by Afghan arrivals was behind the rental price surged in Islamabad — already the most expensive city to live in Pakistan.

"Afghans rent the property for short periods and leave after getting visas, so landlords consider them better options than Pakistanis, who are always for long tenancy," he said.

Visa applications in slow lane

Afghan nationals say delays by Western nations in issuing visas have prolonged their stay. 

"We've got stuck here due to a long delay in visa issuance by Canada and have no information why they're sleeping on our visa application," Nudrat Bibi, 42, told DW.

Many Afghans in Pakistan say they only want to stay temporarily | Photo: Abdul Ghani Kakar/DW
Many Afghans in Pakistan say they only want to stay temporarily | Photo: Abdul Ghani Kakar/DW

She lives in an apartment in Islamabad with six children and her paralyzed husband, a former international NGO worker. Her Canada-based elder brother helps the family with expenses.

Sadduf Barri is another Afghan who is waiting for a visa. A former teacher from Kabul, the 24-year-old, together with her sister, works at a call center for paltry sums. Barri says her family is struggling to make ends meet and is currently renting a small two-story house in Rawalpindi, south of Islamabad. 

The family's visa request was recently rejected by the US. Unwilling to return to Afghanistan because of the insecurity and high unemployment, the family has appealed the visa decision. They are keeping their fingers crossed, she said.

Street Protests

Afghans facing visa delays or denials frequently take to the streets to try to garner support for their resettlement plans. Some of them are so frustrated that they accuse the West of leaving them in the lurch despite promises.

They recall the words of US President Joe Biden, who announced in June 2021, ahead of his forces' withdrawal from Afghanistan, that the Afghan nationals who helped the American military on their soil won't be "left behind."

Some Afghan citizens want to be able to register as refugees within Pakistan, a demand already rejected by the government. The UN refugee agency's spokesperson said discussions with the Pakistani authorities were underway for measures to protect and support vulnerable Afghans in the country and seek solutions to their plight.

More than 80,000 already resettled in the US

In response to DW's email queries, the US State Department said that more than 97,000 Afghan nationals, American citizens and lawful permanent residents had so far arrived in the US from Afghanistan as part of Operation Allies Welcome (OAW).

"We, along with our resettlement agency affiliates and community partners, have worked around the clock to resettle more than 83,600 Afghan nationals to the US through OAW, providing them with initial resettlement assistance. Our goal is to issue visas to every eligible Special Immigrant Visa applicant as quickly as possible," the State Department said.

Edited by: John Silk

First published: November 9, 2022

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