Refugee Cities: How Afghans Changed Urban Pakistan
by Dr Sanaa Alimia
University of Pennsylvania Press 2022, 248pp

Reviewed by: Dr Sobia Kaker
27 October 2023
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Refugee Cities: How Afghans Changed Urban Pakistan is a valuable contribution to the scholarship on urban citizenship, migration, and the politics of belonging. In it, Alimia provides a nuanced and sympathetic account of Afghan lives in urban Pakistan. A sizeable population, and yet understudied within the increasingly growing corpus of work on urbanisation in Pakistan. The book is based on extensive fieldwork and rich ethnographic data, which give voice to the diverse experiences and perspectives of Afghans living in Karachi and Peshawar. The book also draws on historical sources and archival materials to provide a historical context for the Afghan presence in Pakistan. Working through an impressive body of evidence, Alimia outlines life histories of Afghans arriving in Pakistan through wars and conflict from the 1970s onwards. Tracing their settlement into (and sometimes eviction from) refugee camps, katchi abadis, and ordinary urban neighbourhoods, Alimia offers details on how Afghan lives have been shaped by global, national, and urban politics. She outlines how in the process of making new homes, Afghans in Pakistan continue to live unsettled and uncertain lives. 

The book is structured in three parts. Part I provides historical context to the Afghan question in Pakistan. Alimia clearly explains how intersubjective relations between frontier populations and the present-day Pakistani state are steeped in colonial precedents. It is an essential record that reminds us of the historical conflation of Pashtun and Afghan identity, and the continued imagination of Pashtuns as tribal savages. In this part, Alimia reminds us of how Afghan migrants arriving in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan settled in Quetta, Karachi, Peshawar, and neighbouring towns in large numbers. She explains how at the height of the Cold War, INGOs, Arab states, and the CIA poured in substantial financial and military aid directly to Afghan camps, or indirectly to the Pakistani state to support and sustain Afghan refugees/mujahideen in Pakistan. Here, Alimia provides an important reminder of the significance of the Afghan population in Pakistan as one caught up in geo-strategic military (mis)adventures in Afghanistan and suffering for it. Of a population of between 7-8million in 2005, approximately 4.5million had been repatriated by 2018. Of these, many have moved elsewhere, while some have returned to Pakistan. At present, 2.5 to 3 million still live in Pakistan. The majority of these were born in Pakistan, with their parents having moved to Pakistan in the 1970s and 1980s. Alimia uses these statistics to set the context of the remaining book- how are these Afghans negotiating citizenship and belonging in Pakistan? How is this done in and through cities?

In Part II, Alimia traces how Afghans settled in Karachi and Peshawar make their homes in the city and claim rights to it. Drawing on case studies of different localities within Karachi and Peshawar, she elaborates how migrants become absorbed into the informal economy of the city, contributing to impetuous urban growth. In Karachi, she looks at two locations. The first is Camp-e-Marwarid—a katchi abadi for Afghans (now also inhabited by Pakistanis) that was settled by the urban authorities after a military operation in Sohrab Goth. The second is Ishtiaq Goth, a still-precarious settlement on the outskirts of Karachi which is inhabited by Pakistanis displaced from katchi abadis elsewhere in Karachi. In a book on Afghans in urban Pakistan, Alimia’s choice of including narratives of residents of the Pakistani settlement is not obvious beyond the comparable experiences of precarity as well as community solidarity. While I appreciate the richness of the stories (especially of womens’ struggles) in this chapter, I find it reiterates processes previously outlined by scholars such as Nausheen Anwar, Haris Gazdar and Arif Hasan. The two cases do show strong parallels of community solidarity as a pillar of resistance against a violent and uncaring state. But there is little comparative analysis to situate the findings of these two case studies to say something substantive of how “Afghans” change urban Pakistan. I do, however, find the case study of Afghan settlement in Camp-e-Marwarid fascinating, especially the role of the Afghan/Pakistani middleman Haji Jamshed. How does his position as Afghan/Pakistani relate to the residents beyond one of extraction? How do his efforts to settle Camp-e-Marwarid compare to well-documented practices of ‘making a colony’ (Gazdar and Mallah, 2011[1]) in Karachi? What is his relationship with the state? How is he similar to/different from Mustafa Jamal, the Pakistani landlord in Gul Kalay, Peshawar?

These case studies of Camp-e-Marwarid and Gul Kalay do provide important contributions to urban studies scholarship on Pakistan. In describing the importance of Camp-e-Marwarid’s Afghans who could be thought of as unimportant for political actors given that they do not hold formal citizenship and hence the right to vote, Alimia draws attention to their economic value. Not only do they physically build the city as day labourers, but they also do preparatory work to settle uninhabited (and often uninhabitable) lands. In populating camps and tracts of barren land, Afghan refugees and migrants establish essential infrastructure and economic activity in places that are otherwise disconnected from the city. In Camp-e-Marwarid and Gul Kalay, Afghans are sources of capital accumulation for powerful individuals who act as middlemen between the population and the state, as well as local institutions. Despite their material and economic contributions to the cities they inhabit, Alimia demonstrates how Afghans’ right to the city is as frequently challenged as their right to national citizenship. Refugee and migrant camps that become more established can morph into katchi abadis and hence become constructed as an ‘urban problem’ that threatens the city’s world-class status. Their settlements often get cleared to make way for formal housing schemes or other planned developments. Under these circumstances, Alimia traces how the most marginal of urban Afghans are continuously forced to move on elsewhere in the city. Always living precarious lives on the urban margins.

A significant contribution of Refugee Cities is its attention to the relationship between the Pakistani state and Afghans in Pakistan. When looking at informal urban practices of settlement, Alimia highlights how the state relies on informal practices to govern populations it wants nothing to do with (pg 108). However, this is contradictory to the state’s violent everyday surveillance of Afghan bodies in Pakistan. The book traces how the securitisation of Afghans through material and discursive security practices is linked to the post 9/11 global (im)mobility regime. In Part III, Alimia highlights the everyday harassment young Afghan men face from police and state security officials at home or when moving through the city. Such ordinary practices of othering couple with shifting legal injunctions as well as multiple settlement and repatriation schemes to produce an uncertain policy environment on the status of Afghans in Pakistan. Afghans cope by securing real and/or fake Pakistani and Afghan national ID documents and carrying these with them wherever they go, along with news clippings and court orders to secure and legitimise their presence for any authority that brings it into question. In discussing the surveillance politics and uncertain mobility regime that govern Afghan lives in Pakistan, Alimia argues that their right to exist in Pakistan is never linear and continuous. The rights for Afghans to belong in Pakistan are reversible.

Refugee Cities is a valuable political intervention in a time when the global policy environment relating to migration is increasingly hostile. In the touching epilogue, Alimia highlights the human costs and consequences of migration policies for Afghans and their families. It places responsibility for their ongoing generational suffering on powerful global and state actors. It forces readers to reflect on the double violence of the Pakistani state. First, in participating in the military misadventures in Afghanistan. And second, in refusing to take responsibility for its consequences to human lives. While parts of the book are less focused on how Afghans “change” urban Pakistan, it does challenge dominant narratives of refugee and migrant Afghans as passive victims, security threats, or burdens on the host society. It shows how Afghans have actively participated in the social, economic, and cultural life of the cities they inhabit, often in collaboration with Pakistanis.

[1] Gazdar, H., & Bux Mallah, H. (2011). The Making of a ‘Colony’ in Karachi and the Politics of Regularisation. South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal (5).

© Bloomsbury Pakistan 2023


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