ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – It was a day after deadly clashes between Pakistani and Afghan forces at the Torkham border crossing and a Twitter account in the name of Ayisha Baloch was on a characteristic rant: “It would have been better to feed a dog, rather than feeding Afghan refugees … Even dogs are more loyal than Afghans.”
With the fighting at Torkham in June 2016 barely over and two soldiers dead, a new hashtag appeared: #KickOutAllAfghans. Within hours it was top of Twitter’s trending list in Pakistan thanks to users such as one named Amreen Durrani, who tweeted: “These Afghans will [continue to] be unthankful and will conspire against Pakistan. I would strongly recommend to #KickOutAllAfghans.”
The border clashes were among several events over the past three years that have punctuated a sustained campaign of hatred that has poisoned attitudes to Afghan refugees among the general public in Pakistan. The digital mob, which has been raised in support of a slew of xenophobic hashtags, has coincided with what rights groups have called the “forced return” of some 600,000 Afghan refugees during 2016.
The 1.3 million Afghan refugees who remain in Pakistan already face police harassment and government deadlines to depart. Now there are some experts who believe they have also faced and will continue to be threatened by apparently organized hounding on social media.
The hundreds of accounts used to direct anti-refugee propaganda include known Pakistani nationalists, some belonging to populist political parties and some self-identifying as patriots. Yet a closer examination of these social media accounts indicates that bots – computer-generated accounts – and “sock puppets,” a term used to identify fake accounts, may also have been involved.
“The fact that most of these accounts have no profile photos and usually have a bio that talks of their commitment to Pakistan, and especially its military, reflects that they are being run by a cell,” says Taha Siddiqui, a Pakistani journalist known for his critical stance on the country’s military who was recently summoned by the Federal Investigation Authority over his social media activity.
He believes there is a concerted effort on social media to post content that manages perception and controls the narrative, while declining to speculate on who may be directing the campaign. But one thing is clear, he says: “The purpose of their existence [is] to sell the state narrative with regards to flawed policies as the only truth on a space that is expanding in Pakistan.”
The narrative goes as follows: Pakistan hosted millions of Afghans and yet their government is ungrateful and is conspiring against Pakistan with the help of India, so the refugees must be sent back home. The refugees themselves are portrayed as potential terrorists and criminals whose expulsion is necessary to restore peace inside the country.
Genesis of the Anti-Refugee Narrative
The anti-refugee narrative did not begin with Torkham but has been built over time, with events used to step up the levels of invective.
The biggest step change came in December 2014 with the Peshawar school massacre. The attack, which claimed the lives of at least 136 children at the Army Public School, was claimed by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an offshoot of the Afghan Taliban. Unlike the Afghan Taliban – which Pakistan is often accused of supporting – the TTP targets Pakistan, who has accused India and Afghanistan of sponsoring their activities. A Pakistani delegation visited Kabul after the Peshawar massacre with what it claimed was evidence of Afghan collusion in the attack.
In the wake of Peshawar, Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership formulated a National Action Plan to counter the growing terrorist activity inside Pakistan. One of the central planks of the plan was to send Afghan refugees back. A crackdown against the refugees began almost immediately after the attack, and Afghans complained of continuous harassment by the police.
In the three months that followed, the daily average of Afghans being repatriated increased from 59 in 2014 to 651 in 2015.
Typical of the interplay between official statements and online anti-refugee propaganda, in which the language of one is mirrored in the other, was a statement from the Punjab Intelligence Centre – a provincial intelligence department – which reported that “a large number of Afghan refugees” were involved in criminal activities in the province of Punjab. Similar statements emanated from the police in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), accusing Afghan refugees of extortion, terrorism and kidnapping for ransom.
However, these claims were debunked by Ismail Khan, the Peshawar bureau chief of Pakistan’s leading English newspaper, Dawn, when he obtained the provincial crime statistics of KP. The statistics available for the period from 2014 to the end of September 2016 revealed a total of 11,685 criminal cases, of which only 134 involved Afghan refugees. Some 23,007 people were accused in these cases, of which only 300 were Afghans.
“The statistics fly in the face of claims often bandied about by the civil law enforcement agencies, which routinely blame Afghan refugees for the spike in crimes across the province,” Khan wrote.
The report was followed by an unusually scathing editorial in Dawn in January 2017 titled “Hounding Refugees,” which criticized the continuous scapegoating of Afghan refugees.
“The relentless propaganda against this vulnerable section has continued to the point where public opinion appears to have been irreversibly poisoned against the continued presence of Afghan refugees on Pakistani soil,” it read. “While officially denied, Afghan refugees have become a pawn in a policy tug-of-war between the Afghan and Pakistani states.”
Observers see a pattern in which rising tensions between the governments of the two countries translate into anti-refugee statements by public officials in Pakistan.
In May 2016, Balochistan’s home minister Sarfraz Bugti said six Afghan intelligence agents, disguised as refugees, had been arrested. “Enough is enough, we can no longer host Afghan refugees; they have to return to their country,” said Bugti.
Madiha Afzal, a fellow with the Washington-based public policy center, the Brookings Institute, said: “The thread that runs through this is Pakistan’s narrative on Afghan refugees – ‘economic burdens,’ ‘criminals’ and ‘terrorists’ – the latter being the latest refrain.”
How the Narrative Spreads
Critics of Pakistan’s powerful military, which has extensive economic interests as well as influence over policymaking, allege that officials and media alike will parrot whatever line they believe is being pushed.
“There’s no evidence to show that the refugees plotted or gave logistic support for terror attacks in Pakistan,” said U.S.-based Pakistani analyst Muhammad Taqi. “Up until the Lahore Mall road attack, no Afghans had physically carried out an attack.”
Taqi notes that the majority of the Pakistanis do not interact with Afghans on a personal level, which makes them vulnerable to propaganda. “Afghans are ghettoized in certain areas and while people may buy fruit from them or have them decorate their cars, they have little contact on a personal or family level,” he said.
The emergence of social media in Pakistan has seen much of the harshest propaganda move online. The hashtag #KickOutAllAfghans was soon followed by #AfghanRefugeesThreatToPak which also trended for days.
Online trends have often mirrored offline rabble-rousing such as “Go Afghani Go,” a campaign in the Haripur district of KP in which protesters demanded the government expel Afghans immediately, accusing them of “creating a wave of terrorism and criminality.”
One Twitter handle, @ArmyDefender, used the hashtag #GoAfghaniGo, and tweeted: “For the betterment of Pakistan, let’s ask Afghans to leave our country.” The most recent tweets from this account use the hashtag #PakistanRejectsICJ, in connection to the pending case of an alleged Indian spy in custody of the Pakistani military at the International Court of Justice. The same hashtag has been continuously used by @AyishaBaloch, who is the top tweeter of the hashtag #GoAfghaniGo.
This Twitter handle, among the most active in spreading anti-refugee memes, was created in April 2012 but remained mostly inactive for two years. The tweets from 2014 follow the nationalist line, with hashtags accusing the Indian spy agency RAW of sponsoring terrorism in Pakistan. The current display picture in this handle is not an original picture, but has been taken from the internet and repeated requests for an interview have gone unanswered.
A blog linked to this account titled “Truth About Balochistan” has mostly remained inactive, with only a few posts dismissing the secular views of Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and Baloch nationalists campaigning for missing persons.
Balochistan is a south-western Pakistani province where the army has been fighting a separatist insurgency and has been accused of a litany of human rights abuses.
As well as suspected sock puppets and bots, many real Twitter accounts belonging to supporters and officials from Pakistan’s Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) party have been instrumental in the anti-refugee hashtags.
One of the most influential PTI social media activists is Farhan Virk. With more than 153,00 Twitter followers, he’s the pioneer behind many of the nationalist hashtags that trend for days in Pakistan. He explains that many of the hashtag trends are crowdsourced from a large WhatsApp group, consisting mostly of the PTI activists: “Most of the hashtags are decided keeping the public reaction in mind.”
“Since we need more people to take part, we can’t run against the general tide or no one will join our hashtags,” he said.
Virk denies having any connection with the media wing of military, the ISPR or any other government department.
“Whenever you work for Pakistan, you get labeled … Of course, we can’t follow the narrative of RAW (the Indian spy agency), we have to follow the one being propagated by our own military.”
“Blaming Afghan refugees for the state’s own failures is [a] continuation of the growing right-wing isolationism across the globe,” says Khadim Hussain, an analyst based in Peshawar. He says anti-refugee propaganda is just as useful to nationalist populists in Pakistan as it has been to Trump supporters in the U.S. or the leaders of the Brexit campaign in the U.K.
“The elites accumulate all the wealth and power,” Hussain said, “and upon their failure to serve the public, they find easy scapegoats to appease the resentment of the masses; by blaming their failures to deliver upon refugees and naming them as a cause of diminishing job opportunities and growing crime rate.”