Young Afghan boys pose for a portrait on the outskirts of Islamabad.
Young Afghan boys pose for a portrait on the outskirts of Islamabad. Sixty percent of Afghans in Pakistan are younger than 24. All photos by author

Intimate Images of One of the Largest Refugee Populations in the World

Sara Hylton's portfolio documents displacement among Afghan children living at the I-12 settlement in Pakistan.

This article appears in VICE Magazine's Borders Issue. The edition is a global exploration of both physical and invisible borders and examines who is affected by these lines and why we've imbued them with so much power. Click HERE to subscribe to the print edition.

This series was supported by the Pulitzer Center.

One morning in July 2018, on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, the sunrise flickered over the isolated I-12 settlement for Afghan refugees. Dust encircled dozens of children playing with old tire tubes; chickens clucked; and the call to prayer echoed, inviting everyone to pause from their duties. For these kids—and many other Afghan children—the I-12 settlement is the only home they have ever known.


Pakistan is host to one of the largest refugee populations in the world, most of whom hail from Afghanistan. Officially, there are 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees, but according to most estimates, there are up to 1 million more undocumented refugees and migrants. Many of the elders at the I-12 settlement have been in Pakistan since the Soviet invasion forced them from Afghanistan in 1979, giving birth to and raising new generations of Afghan refugees trapped in limbo in the country. Officially registered refugees receive temporary legal status, but they are prohibited from investing in property, purchasing vehicles or SIM cards, and attending public schools and universities.

Refugees live in persistent fear of being forcibly driven out of the country, as more than 600,000 were during the latter half of 2016. Though Imran Khan promised to grant citizenship to refugees when he became president of Pakistan in July 2018, his proposal has met with bureaucratic hurdles and the reality of ethnic discrimination. A year later, citizenship is off the table and refugees have merely been granted the right to open bank accounts.

Though peace talks are underway in Afghanistan, making it a perhaps more appealing place to live for refugees, the future appears tenuous for the children of I-12, who, at least in the immediate future, will continue to live out their childhood on the sidelines—neither from here, nor from there. Even if they do cross the porous border from Pakistan into Afghanistan, “home” remains a concept for the privileged, a luxury for now largely out of their grasp.


Children play near a pond


Scenes of the refugee settlement; according to UNHCR, it houses approximately 505 registered families


Girls at an Afghan refugee settlement at a madrassa, where they study the Koran


A view of the isolated I-12 Afghan refugee settlement, located on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan


An elder poses for a portrait with his son


A girl in the I-12 Afghan settlement plays during the early morning


A little girl sleeps in a colony in Islamabad for landless Pakistanis. Like Afghans, Pakistanis living in informal settlements are vulnerable to discrimination and abuse, and in recent years several areas housing both Pakistanis and Afghans have been demolished to make way for development and high-rise apartment complexes


A mother and her child at the I-12 settlement pose for a portrait. According to a recent report by UNICEF, Pakistan has one of the worst newborn mortality rates in the world, with almost 1 in 20 children dying before they are one month old. If a woman is a refugee with little access to healthcare, becoming a mother is even more dangerous


Mud homes shelter the thousands of Afghan refugees who have settled in I-12


Boys at the I-12 settlement ride a traditional donkey carriage used to transport goods


The Koran is taught to young girls at the I-12 settlement. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there is only one government school in I-12, where 71 Afghans and 79 Pakistanis are enrolled


In the lead-up to national elections, political signs were scattered everywhere on the streets. Here, Pakistan Tehreek- e-Insaf (PTI) and Muttahida Majlis-e- Amal (MMA) signs hang in front of the Wasir Khan mosque in the walled city of Lahore. The Pakistan cricket legend Imran Khan became the prime minister of Pakistan and led PTI to emerge as the single largest party in parliament last year

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