ISLAMABAD: Since the late 1970s, Pakistan has hosted over three million Afghan refugees – one of the largest displaced populations in the world. But despite a difficult past, never before have these refugees – many of whom have since raised families and put down roots in Pakistan – faced the kind of discrimination and abuse at the hands of law enforcement agencies as they did in the aftermath of the attack on the Army Public School (APS) in Peshawar, on December 16, 2014.
Through a series of interviews with refugees who had returned to Kabul, as well as Afghans still living in parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Azad Kashmir and Punjab, a new report by international watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) reveals that the use of harassment, threats and intimidation by law enforcement agencies had reached an all-time high in the wake of the APS attack.
Despite the fact that the investigation into the attack did not yield evidence of significant Afghan involvement, the Afghan population in the country continued to be targeted at the official level, the report claims.
“In the first week after the [APS] attack... intimidation intensified to unprecedented levels and included threats from police that Afghans should leave the country or face arrest,” the report noted.
In fact, the report points out, every one interviewed attributed their decision to return to Afghanistan to a fear of police action. HRW points to actions such as an anti-encroachment drive in the Board market area of Peshawar, which was dominated by Afghan vendors, saying that most of them lost their livelihoods in the operation.
HRW report maintains refugees forced to return to Afghanistan in the face of severe abuse, harassment by authorities
Several of those interviewed said they were forced by the authorities to go live in refugee camps, such as the one in Haripur, to escape police harassment. However, in the absence of facilities such as food, water, shelter and electricity, many families chose to move back to Afghanistan, despite the adversity that awaited them there.
Consequently, the report notes, the rate of ‘spontaneous returns’ – the term used by officials describe those who returned to Afghanistan without being deported – spiked to unprecedented levels in the first three months of 2015, immediately after the introduction of the National Action Plan (NAP) to counter terrorism and extremism.
The 20-point NAP contained the stipulation that the government would form a comprehensive policy for the registration of Afghan refugees. The HRW report notes that the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions (Safron) pledged in the wake of the APS attack that Pakistan would “maintain its traditional hospitality” toward Afghan refugees.
However, describing the kinds of threats faced by Afghans in this time, the report quotes UNHCR monthly updates from Aug and Sept, 2015.
“Eviction notices by authorities, harassment, intimidation, movement limitations, economic factors, settlement closure and fear of arrest and/or deportation were mentioned by returnees as the main push factors for return from Pakistan this year.”
One of the main challenges facing Afghan refugees in Pakistan is that of recognition.
The first comprehensive attempt to register them was made in 2005 through a census of those who arrived in Pakistan on or after Dec 1, 1979. It was estimated that 3,049,268 Afghans resided in Pakistan, and those who registered were the only ones eligible for a Proof of Residence card recognising their legal status.
But only 2.2 million Afghans received such cards, relegating the nearly 900,000 remaining Afghans into the ‘undocumented’ category. Since there was no subsequent survey, all Afghans who came to Pakistan after 2005 automatically fall into this category.
However, Safron minister Abdul Qadir Baloch rejected the perception that Afghan refugees were being maltreated in Pakistan. When asked about the specific incidents mentioned in the HRW report, he said, “Countries all over the world have rules and regulations; if any Afghans were found involved in illegal activities, they would definitely be taken to task.”
When asked about the alleged forced repatriation of Afghans, the minister said that Pakistan was under international commitments that required it to take care of Afghan refugees living here. But at the same time, he said, “We are trying to create favourable conditions for their smooth repatriation. The government of Pakistan is proactively engaged with the Afghan govt in this regard and the latter has created favourable on ground conditions for returning Afghans.”
He admitted, however, that the Dec 31, 2015 deadline for Afghan repatriation, set under NAP, could not be achieved by the government. “I am hopeful that this will be possible in the next couple of years,” he concluded.
Responding to some of the allegations regarding police high-handedness against Afghan refugees, Peshawar Police Chief Mubarak Zeb told Dawn that KP police had an open complaint mechanism whereby anyone who had a grievance against any police official could lodge a complaint, even via SMS.
The CCPO Peshawar said that Board market was a classic example of an encroached area, where street vendors had virtually occupied both sides of the road, adding that they were mandated to clear the roads.
He also denied that there was a concerted drive against Afghans in Peshawar, but added that those who did not possess the relevant documents were proceeded against according to the law.
Published in Dawn, November 18th, 2015