Precarious work – Afghanistan and Pakistan

Afghans escaping the Taliban face new challenges as refugees

Ali Amani and Mohammad Amiri

The poverty, fear and despair following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan on 15 August 2021 prompted hundreds of thousands of Afghans, especially the young and educated, to seek refuge and employment opportunities in the neighbouring countries of Iran and Pakistan. Many, including human rights activists, journalists, government officials and security guards, faced specific risks of being targeted on account of their work. The challenges they face, however, continue in different forms after they have crossed the border, particularly for members of minorities, persons with disabilities, women and female-headed households who face heightened barriers in accessing basic rights, services and employment. 

Seeking to prevent a large-scale influx of Afghan refugees, Pakistan and Iran adopted closed border policies to manage the new arrivals from Afghanistan. Given the barriers this created, as well as the difficulties of obtaining travel documents inside Afghanistan, many Afghans were forced to engage human traffickers to cross the borders – a highly dangerous journey that some do not survive. The large numbers that do succeed in crossing into Pakistan and Iran, however, are often deported back to Afghanistan. 

Hasssan* is one such refugee who managed to reach Pakistan after paying AFN 15,000 [US$170] to human smugglers at the Pakistani border. A Shi’a Hazara and a former government official, Hassan left for the city of Quetta three days after the collapse of the Kabul government. ‘I escaped from Afghanistan due to security reasons and the threats posed to me and my family by the Taliban, and crossed the Spin-Boldak border into Quetta,’ he explains. However, his new life was far from secure. ‘For about three months, I faced severe economic difficulties and I also faced constant fear of deportation back to Afghanistan all the time.’ 

Hassan had spent the first few days of his arrival to Quetta in a local mosque. ‘The first days and weeks in Pakistan were very difficult for us. The situation was really difficult for my wife and family. We slept on prayer mats and had barely anything to eat.’ Despite his education and extensive professional experience, he was unable to find any sort of living. ‘Immediately after my arrival, I went to several logistics and travel agencies to find work. The employers would look at my CV and make fun of it, but never call me for the job.’

Finding a decent job in Pakistan for an Afghan refugee is like a Herculean task.

Homayoun*

On top of that, Hassan’s economic and mental woes increased when he realized that he would not be able to afford the medical treatment for his young daughter, who suffered from a congenital heart defect. ‘Unable to find work, the long wait to process our refugee cases at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and seeing the worsening condition of my daughter, I had to take another risk and I had to go somewhere else.’ Ultimately, after spending more than three months in Pakistan, he left for Iran in the hope of securing better employment opportunities and potential treatment for his daughter. 

Other refugees have similarly found themselves unable to apply their skills and knowledge after leaving Afghanistan. This was the experience of Homayoun*, a photographer who escaped to Pakistan after the fall of Kabul. ‘Finding a decent job in Pakistan for an Afghan refugee is like a Herculean task,’ he says. ‘I have a diploma in photography. I have worked with several NGOs, in the private sector and was involved in local photography projects in Afghanistan. However, in Pakistan, I have not been able to find even daily wage work, let alone a suitable job in my photography field.’ 

Having tried his luck at several local photography studios but never hearing back from them, with what little savings he had now gone, he often sits by the side of the main road in Hazara Town, a neighbourhood in Quetta, hoping that someone will drive by and offer him work. In the first five months of his stay in Pakistan, he was hired only once for a full week of paid daily wage work. ‘I and another friend were desperately looking for a daily wage work,’ he says. ‘With the help of one of our neighbours, we were able to find work in a newly under-construction building for only seven days with a very low wage. We were carrying bricks and cement from the first floor to the fourth floor of the building.’ 

Afghan refugees mostly work in informal sectors in their host countries, such as construction, cleaning and other low-wage jobs. However, due to high unemployment in Pakistan, even these jobs are not always readily available to Afghan refugees. Around 900 kilometres away, in the poor back alleys of Rawalpindi, lives Azeem*, another refugee who has left no stone unturned in his desperate search for work. ‘I am registered with the UNHCR office, I have a refugee card and I know the language of this country, but I can’t find work wherever I go,’ he explains. Azeem has a Bachelor’s degree from Kabul University, with six years’ work experience in both the public and private sectors. ‘I am not looking for a service sector job because I know it is not possible in Pakistan. I’m looking for the so-called “daily wage work”, a wage that’s enough to meet the basic needs of myself and my wife.’ 

Azeem frequently visits the outskirts of Rawalpindi and Islamabad in search of manual jobs to make ends meet. ‘One day, I visited a shoe factory in a poor neighbourhood of Rawalpindi called Bangash Colony, in the hope of getting hired there. After seeing me, the owner said “Mashallah, you look healthy – I will give you PKR 300 [less than US$2] a day and you have to work from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.”’ Azeem immediately did the calculations in his head and realized that if he worked for 30 days nonstop, he would earn just PKR 9,000 – whereas he pays PKR 12,000 on rent alone. ‘I told him immediately, can’t you pay me PKR 400 a day?’ says Azeem. ‘The idea was that if he pays me PKR 400 a day, it would be PKR 12,000 a month, and with that I could manage my rent easily.’ ‘“That’s too much,” the owner replied sarcastically, “You have American dollars, the value of your country’s money is twice as much as ours. What will you do with this extra money?”’ 

According to Azeem, his situation is far from unique. Afghan refugees, especially those who arrived in Pakistan after the Taliban takeover, face severe economic difficulties, constant fears of deportation and an inability to find decent work. On top of that, due to the large influx of refugees, the services of UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations are very limited: ‘We know refugees who don’t even have a place and a proper shelter.’ 

* The names of all the interviewees in this case study have been changed to protect their anonymity.

Photo: Sameera, an Afghan refugee, works from home making jewellery and embroidered clothes. Karachi, Pakistan. Credit: Saiyna Bashir