Gemstone business collapses as afghan traders forced home

PESHAWAR: The gemstones and antique jewelry businesses depend on imports from Afghanistan and Afghan traders who dominate the industry in Peshawar, but the ongoing repatriation of Afghan refugees has hit the sector hard, say gemstone dealers.

Peshawar’s Namak Mandi bazaar, known for its sizzling, delectable mutton karahi, is also famous for traders that deal in precious stones.

This busy bazaar in the old city and the nearby Shinwari Market is where Afghan traders first opened their shops when they became refugees after the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. It is here in the narrow streets and the bazaars that they started the trade in precious gems, opening small stalls and shops.

Abdul Jalil Khan, who heads an organisation of gemstone dealers in Namak Mandi, said the bulk of gems for sale in the Peshawar bazaars – emerald, ruby, tourmaline, aquamarine, kunzite, clinohumite, sphene, spinel, and peridot – came from Afghanistan.

“The precious stones come to market in raw form and are cut and polished here,” he told News Lens Pakistan.

Rough gemstones are cut by a dealer in Namak Mandi.

For a business that depends on Afghan traders for imports and retail and wholesale transaction, the prognosis looks bad as Afghan refugees are being pushed to leave for their country under an aggressive repatriation drive.

“Just as the gems market suffered due to conflict and security threats a few years back, it faces an uncertain time once again with the repatriation of Afghans,” Khan said.

“It will take time for the market to recover from this crisis and be profitable again.”

According to the UNHCR, Pakistan is home to 1.5 million registered refugees.

In recent years, the authorities’ stance on refugee repatriation has toughened as relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have soured. Neighbours regularly blame each other for fomenting trouble inside their borders and providing safe havens to terrorists. The government has revised the deadline for repatriation several times in the past with the latest being 31 March, 2017.

Jamal Shah, a small scale gemstone trader in Namal Mandi, finds this state of affairs detrimental to his business that depends on supply of precious stones from Afghanistan.

“Minor businesses like mine depend on gems from the local markets in Peshawar that are fed by raw material from Afghanistan,” Shah told News Lens. “I buy gems here and sell them in Islamabad and Karachi. It will be difficult for me to go to Afghanistan as supplies dwindle. I will have to look for other sources of living.”

A far greater setback is repatriation for the Afghan traders themselves, who have suffered huge losses closing down established businesses and relocating.

“It was a hard decision for me to close my business in Namak Mandi,” said Abdul Sami, an Afghan gemstone trader who just wrapped up business in Peshawar.

“For the last 17 years, I have been living and working here. Here we got connected to international businessmen. I don’t know whether my business will be as successful in Kabul or not.”

Before the security environment in the region became shaky – after  the September 2001 terror attacks in the United States – gemstone traders in the province drew tourists from Canada, America, Australia and Europe. Now only Chinese traders visit the market. According to the gemstone dealers union, the industry has brought home more than $27 million in foreign exchange in the last five years.

At the Shinwari Market in Andher Sher, prospects for business look equally dim. Once the market was a bustling place frequented by buyers and sellers of antique jewelry, with more than 90 per cent of traders belonging to Afghanistan. They sold garments, glassware, jewelry and antiques and became suppliers of the same throughout the country and abroad.  Now, one by one, the shops in the multi-storied market are closing down, with traders shifting businesses back home to Afghanistan.

The few shopkeepers that remain open here foresee a complete end to the antique jewelry market and business in the coming days.

“We appeal to the provincial government to make an alternative policy for the Afghan traders,” said Shah Khan, a dealer in antique jewellery at the Shinwari Market.

“The authorities have cracked down on Afghan refugees and as a result local business and dealers have suffered.”

According to Meher Mohammad, Secretary of the All Pakistan Commercial Exporters Association (APCEA), gemstones constitute a considerable part of Pakistan’s export to other countries. With the Afghans closing shop here, he is concerned that repatriation will badly affect both the local market and exports.

“We cannot say exactly about the extent of damage this has done already but things will become clearer by the end of the year [as the repatriation deadline approaches],” Mohammad told News Lens.

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