Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan gestures as he leads a protest march to Islamabad on August 15, 2014.
CNN  — 

Pakistan’s new Prime Minister Imran Khan has vowed to grant citizenship to Afghan refugees, a policy reversal that may affect over a million people.

Pakistan, home to one of the world’s largest refugee populations, hosts more than 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees, some of whom fled the Soviet invasion in 1979.

Khan made the announcement at a fund-raising dinner in Karachi Sunday, but he did not make clear whether he will only confer citizenship to Afghans born in Pakistan or to all those who live there.

“We will… god willing give (passports) to those Afghans whose children were born here and grew up in Pakistan,” he said in video footage seen by CNN.

“When you are born in America, you get the American passport. It is the practice in every country in the world, so why not here? Why are we so cruel to these people? They are humans,” he added.

He also said that he would confer citizenship on Bengali immigrants to Pakistan. It is not known how many Bengalis live in Pakistan, but hundreds of thousands arrived during the 1971 civil war when East Pakistan broke away to create Bangladesh.

“We will issue passports and identity cards to the people from Bangladesh who have been living here for, I don’t know, forty years. Their children grew up here too.” Khan said.

Rights activists welcomed the pledge as war-ravaged Afghanistan is struggling to cope with increasing levels of violence and Afghan refugees have faced deportation and harassment in Pakistan.

In 2016, a police crackdown and threats of deportation coerced over 600,000 Afghans to face danger and destitution back in Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch has claimed.

“Khan’s decision is a big one,” said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the US-based Wilson Center. “Bengali and Afghan refugees have suffered from discrimination in Pakistan for years, and granting citizenship to them would mark a major reversal in policy and give them a semblance of dignity that has long been denied to them.”

Potential backlash

However, Khan’s pledge risks sparking a backlash from nationalist Pakistanis, many of whom malign Afghan refugees as criminals and interlopers.

“Over the last few years, there has really been a targeted campaign to make Afghan refugees feel insecure in Pakistan – by the state repeatedly saying their proof of registration cards will expire, only to extend them at the last minute, to the propagation of a narrative that Afghan refugees have been a cause of Pakistan’s economic and security problems, said Madiha Afzal, a Brookings Institute fellow.

Questions have also been raised about how it would be viewed by Pakistan’s powerful military, whom the opposition accused of rigging elections earlier this year in favor of Khan.

Pakistan’s military frequently suggests that Afghan refugees are a security threat, said Kugelman. “If the military opposed this move, then this issue could represent an early test for civil-military relations in the Imran Khan era,” he added.

Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, who share a disputed border, have worsened since 2001, with Kabul accusing Islamabad of giving sanctuary to Taliban militants.

Pakistan denies the charge and blames Afghanistan for harboring Pakistani Taliban militants.

Political motivation

The pledge has been greeted with some skepticism as Khan has backtracked on several issues since winning elections in July.

“Khan has the political capital to convince (opponents of the move) – and if he manages to go through with this, he will build political capital with Pakistan’s liberals as well,” said Afzal.

The move will face several legal, technical, political and security-related challenges, said Mosharraf Zaidi, a political analyst and commentator.

“Khan’s impulsive expression of compassion, while rooted in the right instinct, should have been moderated by better preparation,” he added.

Some commentators have suggested the move may also be motivated by political concerns as the great majority of Afghan refugees in Pakistan are ethnic Pashtuns, who form a key component of Khan’s vote base.

“One certainly can’t deny a political motivation at play here,” said Kugelman.

“Though Khan already has strong Pashtun constituencies in his corner, he may well hope that this type of move will solidify the support of Pakistan’s second-largest ethnic group.”