Millions of Afghan refugees fled to Pakistan after the soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Many of the refugees returned to their country after the soviet forces exited from Afghanistan. However, they were again displaced by internal fighting among Mujahidin groups and later by the Taliban movement.
Pakistan welcomed the influx of refugees with open heart and hosted them for 40 years. According to the UNHCR, 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees are still living in Pakistan. However, very few people in the country know about the real problems and issues being faced by these refugees.
The reason behind this is that they get little coverage in the national and local media and that too in a biased manner portraying Afghan migrants as burden and security risk to the country.
The lack of coverage has also created a gap between humanitarian aid agencies and refugees communities that has added to the miseries of the latter.
There are six reasons that Pakistani media have failed to give due, fair and just coverage to the Afghan refugees living in the country.
- No sensitization of media persons: Editors and reporters are not sensitized and educated on the issue of migrations and refugees. Generally journalists write and produce stories on refugees when they are fleeing a conflict or natural disasters such as earthquake or floods. Once the refugees are settled in host communities or camps, little or no attention is paid to their rehabilitation and basic needs. The editors and reporters have lack of understanding of refugees’ issues making them least interested to make independent and balanced stories on their challenges. The lack of in-house and external training opportunities for journalists keeps them desensitized towards refugees’ populations and their problems.
- No refugees’ beats: There are several dedicated beats in news organizations that are covered by reporters on daily basis. However, no specific beat is dedicated to reporting on migration and refugees despite the fact that a huge number of Afghan migrants has been hosted by Pakistan for decades. As a result, the issues and problems of Afghan refugees get lesser coverage in the national and local media. It again shows that media organizations are not interested to invest their resources into the coverage of refugees’ issues.
- Biased coverage of Afghan refugees: Majority of the Afghan refugees are peaceful migrants who positively contribute to Pakistani economy through their hard work. But unfortunately they are stereotyped and labelled as criminals and terrorists by national media organizations without assigning any proofs and facts. This perception is deeply rooted in the state narrative that often describes the presence of Afghan refugees on its soil as threat to Pakistan internal security. The perceived negative image of Afghan refugees is further strengthened when an Afghan refugee is found guilty of any crime or for that matter the Afghan soil is used by terrorists against Pakistan. We witnessed in case of brutal school attack in Peshawar that left 150 students and staff members dead. The perpetrators of the attack were based in Afghanistan who claimed responsibility for the attack. This caused increased hate against Afghan refugees in the country. Following the incident, police and security agencies started a crackdown against unregistered Afghan refugees and forced thousands of them to leave the country. Pakistani media did not dig deep into the issue and did one sided stories by giving space to the versions and statements of the Pakistani authorities on the situation and ignoring refugees’ voices. The partial reporting also promotes stereotypes of Afghan refugees as criminal and enemies of Pakistan.
- Refugees are not target audience: A major portion of Pakistani news organizations are commercially-oriented and they mainly take care of their audience based in urban centers such as Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad. It means that majority of stories are published and broadcasted about these cities and their residents in national media. Leave alone Afghan refugees, the problems of populations in rural Pakistan are not given due attention in contents generated by these media houses. The limited coverage that Afghan refugees get in Pakistani media, is mostly about the statements issued by the UNHCR and Pakistani government about the possible stay extension, repatriation or registration of Afghan refugees. It does not talk about the real issues of the refugees. Such coverage is meant to inform Pakistani audience and authorities and international community about any change in policies that affect Afghan communities in Pakistan.
- Language of broadcast and publication:Pakistani media mainly broadcast and publish stories in either Urdu or English that do not benefit the vast majority of Afghan refugees who speak/read either in Pashtu or Dari. A couple of Pashtu TV channels and newspapers pursue statements and event-based news agenda that largely benefit the political elites but refugees.
- No reporters from refugees’ community:To integrate the voices of Afghan refugees in news coverage, it’s important for media houses to have reporters from the respective community. In my knowledge, there are hardly any reporters from the refugees community working for Pakistani media in the country. This is also one of the reasons that mainstream media is not aware of the issues facing the Afghan refugees. This disconnect between media houses and refugees’ populations has created information vacuum related to the Afghan migrants living in Pakistan. If the media would take Afghan refugees as reporters, they would have been in better position to understand and highlight the issues of those refugees through reporting of investigative and in-depth stories. This would also diversify the contents and make it inclusive of all communities.