National Geographic’s Iconic “Afghan Girl” Arrested in Pakistan

Sharbat Gula was recently detained on charges of having a fake I.D.

sharbat gula
Emanuele via Wikimedia Commons

When a portrait of a young Afghani woman with piercing green eyes appeared on the cover of a 1985 issue of National Geographic, the young woman became an international icon. At the time, Sharbat Gula was a young refugee living in a camp in Pakistan. Now, more than 30 years later, she’s been detained in Pakistan on charges of falsifying an I.D. card, Christine Hauser and Ismail Khan report for The New York Times.

Though her arrest is a relatively high-profile one, she’s far from the only Afghan with forged documents being targeted by Pakistani authorities. Human Rights Watch researcher Gerry Simpson says that while 1.5 million refugees in Pakistan have been issued documents protecting them from being deported, nearly a million more have been forced to get falsified documents to avoid being forced back to Afghanistan.

Gula was one of the latter. Europe isn’t the only part of the world struggling to figure out how to handle a massive influx of refugees. Since the 1980s, Pakistan has been home to about millions of Afghani refugees who fled the country to escape fighting between local militias and the Soviet army, Jon Boone reports for The Guardian. But over the years, these refugees have increasingly become the target of harassment and are frequently used as scapegoats by Pakistani politicians for problems with terrorism and crime.

"It is a sign of the times in Pakistan, that it has now reached someone who was something of a celebrity in the '80s, someone more high profile than the average," Nicholas Bishop, a project development officer for the International Organization for Migration’s Afghanistan department, tells Rebecca Wright and Sophia Saifi for CNN.

According to Pakistani officials, Gula obtained a false Pakistani I.D. card in 1988 and an updated, computerized card in 2014. Gula now faces $3,000 to $5,000 in fines and up to 14 years in prison if she's convicted.

Since her arrest, people have rallied to try and get Gula help from refugee agencies, including Steve McCurry, the photographer who famously snapped Gula's picture when she was living in the refugee camp near the Pakistani city of Peshawar. Currently, Gula falls under the umbrella of undocumented migrant and she will only be able to get help from organizations like the UN Refugee Agency if she registers as a refugee, Wright and Saifi report.

For now, Gula’s fate is uncertain, as is that of the millions of her fellow Afghans who fled to Pakistan for shelter from their conflict-ravaged country. Pakistani authorities continue to send hundreds of thousands of refugees back to neighboring Afghanistan, which is still struggling with conflicts and skirmishes. What happens when they are forced back is anyone’s guess.

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