Close sites icon close
Search form

Search for the country site.

Country profile

Country website

UNHCR looks at the economic contribution of Afghan refugees in Pakistan


UNHCR looks at the economic contribution of Afghan refugees in Pakistan

Afghan refugees have worked in almost every sector of Pakistan's economy over the past 30 years. A UNHCR report examines their contribution in more detail.
10 January 2011
A young garbage collector squats beside a pile of rubbish at a small separating depot in Karachi.

KARACHI, Pakistan, January 10 (UNHCR) - Marjan belies the common perception that Afghan refugees are a burden on Pakistan's economy. The petite mother of five toils from dawn till dusk at a garbage dump on the edge of Karachi, sorting out paper and plastic bags that can be recycled.

"The smell is unbearable and this is very dirty work, but what choices do I have?," she said, adding: "This garbage earns me enough to feed my family." The refugee, who fled from her home in north-east Afghanistan's rugged Badakhshan province 11 years ago, makes 250 Pakistan rupees (US$3) a day from the owner of the sorting depot, who is also an Afghan exile.

She works at the garbage dump alongside about 100 other Afghan refugees, but Marjan and her relative, Husna, are the only women. They are among hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees who have worked in almost every sector of Pakistan's economy since first starting to arrive in this country in the late 1970s.

But a lack of official data has meant that the economic contribution of Afghan workers and businessmen has been consistently overlooked. To fill this gap, UNHCR recently launched a study to better quantify the participation of Afghans in the Pakistan economy, and assess their contribution.

The "Afghan Citizens' Contribution to the Economy of Pakistan" survey is being piloted in Karachi and five other districts - Peshawar, Harripur, Quetta, Islamabad and Attock - and will be extended to other parts of the country in the months to come. It is being conducted alongside the "Population, Profiling and Verification Response" study, which is examining the specific needs and situation of Afghans in Pakistan, including information about livelihoods, social conditions and legal problems.

The economic study will look closely at refugees working in recycling and a wide range of other trades in a country where young and old Afghans scavenging among piles of refuse are a common sight in every city.

Haji Sharif, owner of the sorting depot where Marjan works, believes that tens of thousands of Afghan refugees are employed in the collection, sorting and recycling of garbage in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city and its economic hub.

"Teenage Afghans come to Karachi from other towns and cities and send good money back home [in other parts of Pakistan] to support their families," revealed Sharif, an Afghan refugee who makes between 25,000 and 30,000 rupees a month from his business.

Some people are involved in collecting recyclable waste from the streets or from any of the many garbage dumps of the city. They are paid by businessmen such as Sharif, either by the day or by weight, for the rubbish they collect.

The garbage is sorted and sent to factories and workshops that specialize in recycling the metal, paper, rubber, glass and plastic content. Some of the recycled material, like plastic, is sent overseas.

"Everything here has a value if one knows what to do with it," Sharif stressed. "We collect the garbage and extract the valuable content. By the time the waste has been recycled, it is worth its weight in gold," he added.

While that may be a slight exaggeration, Marjan and other rubbish collectors, like 50-year-old Ghausudin from northern Afghanistan, would agree with the sentiment. "This garbage is my bread and butter," Ghausudin said: "I create something valuable from the things that other people throw away."

Pakistan hosts around 1.6 million registered Afghan refugees, including 80,000 in Karachi. Around 7 per cent of them earn a living as daily labourers in a wide range of industries, according to government figures for 2006-2007.

By Duniya Aslam Khan in Karachi, Pakistan