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Book Review: Refugee Cities: How Afghans Changed Urban Pakistan

Book review of Sanaa Alimia's Refugee Cities: How Afghans Changed Urban Pakistan (2022)

Published onMay 31, 2024
Book Review: Refugee Cities: How Afghans Changed Urban Pakistan

Refugee Cities: How Afghans Changed Urban Pakistan by Sanaa Alimia (2022). Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Sanaa Alimia’s new book, Refugee Cities (2022), documents how the lives of a migrant population are shaped by geography, national and international politics, and local power struggles, resulting in a continuous struggle for legitimacy. Alimia situates the microhistories of Afghan migrants in Karachi and Peshawar against the backdrop of two major wars: the Soviet-Afghan War and the War on Terror (the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks in New York City). The result is an ambitious work that highlights how geopolitics and post-colonial urbanism mediate the lives of Afghan migrants in urban Pakistan.

Chapter One, entitled “Ghosts of Empire,” brings us into the world of migrants, where access to basic resources becomes a matter of contention. During the 1970s, this competition of resources was initially welcomed by the Pakistani state, as a means of exerting political influence over Afghanistan. With the onset of the War on Terror, the status of migrants shifted. The assumption of Pakistani officials was that, regardless of how long they had lived in Pakistan, the Afghan migrants would eventually return to their “natural” territorial homeland.

Urbanity in twenty-first-century Pakistan, as in other parts of South Asia, is driven by the new language of “sustainable cities” and “world-class cities,” labels that imply urban futures defined by consumerism and finance capital. Against this backdrop, Alimia shows how Afghans have made a place for themselves in urban Pakistan: they have “transformed space into place, imbuing it with emotional, social, and material investments” (p. 7). Place-making is seen as a quotidian practice, as the inhabitants push for rights and resources in the informal settlements that they inhabit.

Chapter Two, entitled “The Right to Water in an Informal Camp,” takes us through Camp-e-Marwarid in Karachi, where the muddled nature of urban governance is explored in depth. Alimia navigates the corruption and mismanagement within the water-distribution system, revealing how a local “water mafia” controls the supply via the involvement of Karachi Sewage and Water Board (KSWB) officials in its illegal water-hydrant operations. Indeed, water becomes a focal point for Alimia to discuss how basic necessities are entangled with systemic corruption and socio-political struggles, reflecting the daily challenges faced by the camp’s Afghan residents in their quest for dignity and survival.

Chapter Three, entitled “Bulldozers and Violence in a Pakistani Settlement,” demonstrates the neoliberal economic approach of the state with respect to urban development. In its simplest form, this approach implies limited direct state intervention and the primacy of markets in resource allocation. The chapter invites us to bear witness to the complex nature of Karachi’s urban governance, with its various sub-divisions, overlapping mandates, and multiple departments. As we traverse Karachi’s Ishtiaq Goth settlement, we encounter ethnically diverse spaces with residents employed mostly as factory or construction workers or as day laborers. The author argues that the city’s redevelopment schemes pathologize these neighborhoods and their inhabitants (p. 68), targeting the very people who make the city function. The de facto allocation of resources and spaces is driven by a local “land mafia” (p. 69), which includes state patrons and political parties. Alimia initially assumed that, for Pakistani nationals, living in a neighborhood like Ishtiaq Goth, which is predominantly inhabited by their co-citizens, would result in better access to rights and resources. However, her fieldwork revealed that in most aspects of everyday life, there was a common precariousness between Pakistani nationals and Afghan migrants. Class status proved to be more crucial in determining living conditions than citizenship, influencing the daily lives of citizens and refugees alike.

Chapter Four, entitled “Peshawar’s Afghan Transformation,” explores the role of legality in people’s claims to the city. This is explored through the story of Palwasha, an Afghan Pashtun migrant living in the Gul Kalay settlement, who feels a sense of place despite lacking formal recognition. At the same time, for some of her fellow migrants, having legitimacy and formal recognition from the Pakistani state as “paper citizen” (p. 84) is crucial for their sense of security. In this case, Alimia shows that belonging is typically mediated by both formal and informal means.

The Pakistani state’s governance practices are heavily influenced by its history of being ruled by a post-colonial military regime, which prioritized security over welfare and economic development. This creates islands of functioning infrastructure in an otherwise-unplanned urban sphere. The boundaries between the official and the unofficial are explored by comparing Hayatabad, a well-planned neighborhood where the author stayed, with Gul Kalay, an informal, unrecognized Afghan-majority settlement on the outskirts of Peshawar. Hayatabad has access to piped water, gas, electricity, and a functional sewage system, whereas Gul Kalay does not appear on official maps and lacks basic amenities.

Palwasha and her family’s story (p. 83) reflect a constant search for stability amidst precarious conditions of the settlement, whether through informal labor markets or transnational employment. But the author reminds us that the diverse forms of labor in Gul Kalay—from street hawking and day labor in agriculture and construction to forms of work bondage in brick kilns—reflect more than just economic activities; they are also embedded cultural practices and survival strategies. This system of work not only supports economic transactions but also creates bonds of trust and mutual aid. For instance, Asfandyar, a fifty-one-year-old Afghan shopkeeper, and his sons formed a reciprocal relationship with leaders at the local mosque, which allowed them to access water for free (p. 106). In return, they help maintain the mosque and its surroundings. Similarly, Palwasha’s sons actively engage in community work, such as digging drains for their home and for their neighbors. Despite such dynamic spaces, the question of the Afghan migrants’ claim to legitimacy in the city lingers.

Chapter Five, entitled “Surveillance, Documents, and Repatriation,” highlights the dual role of identification systems, both as tools for distributing humanitarian aid and as instruments of surveillance. This complex intersection is where care and control converge. The use of national ID cards and registration systems such as the shanakhti passbook for Afghan refugees are central to how the Pakistani state exerts control and manages its migrant populations. This complicates the picture since the documents serve as tools of state control but also as sources of legitimacy for individuals. In addition, they facilitate access to basic resources for individuals while also being part of a broader effort to “map” Afghans, both within and outside Afghanistan (p. 120). As a result, such practices have led to fear and confusion among the migrants as well as the development of strategies to navigate or even circumvent the registration processes. What is usually seen as a means of legitimacy and inclusion into the formal economy is conversely perceived as a threat by migrants. Many Afghans, especially those with established lives in Pakistan, choose not to register for new identity cards to avoid the risk of potentially losing their already acquired Pakistani citizenship. For them, technology ceases to be a neutral infrastructural entity and instead becomes a hostile force to be avoided, indicating the tension between the state’s need to control and individuals’ need for security and belonging.

Alimia is acutely aware of her own position and identity as a British-Pakistani researcher. She recognizes the significant distance between Hayatabad’s planned and well-resourced area, where she resided, and the destitution of Peshawar’s informal settlements. This self-awareness is implicit throughout her narrative, acknowledging how her background and perceived access to institutional and political networks (p. 71) influence her interactions with interlocutors. Alimia does not shy away from discussing the implications of this positionality; she understands that people often see her as someone who might have connections to influential networks. This recognition adds depth and authenticity to her research, highlighting the complex dynamics between researchers and study participants that every ethnographer faces.

Finally, Refugee Cities leaves us with the dichotomy of city and state. People’s sense of belonging to their home city, be it Karachi or Peshawar, is forged through intimate connections, daily interactions, and social networks. In contrast, the larger nation-state often represents an “other” that is unfamiliar and inaccessible. The desire to stay in a city despite the hardships imposed by a national government illustrates a form of longing rooted in practical and emotional attachments rather than legal or bureaucratic affiliations. For migrants like Hidayatullah, whom we meet at the end of the book, the idea of “return” is not about going back to a homeland defined by national borders but about maintaining a connection to a city, Karachi, that has become his true home. This is a nuanced sensibility of how cities, rather than nation-states, can become the primary locus of identity and belonging for displaced communities. As such, Refugee Cities can be read as a tribute to those deep-seated bonds of place that often transcend official documentation and political boundaries.


Author Biography

Anshul Rai Sharma works as an Academic Associate at the School of Development of Azim Premji University in Bengaluru, India. He is an incoming PhD student in the Department of Geography of the University of Colorado Boulder. His research focuses on the intersection of labor, informality, and urbanization in the city of Bengaluru.  

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