UNTIL recently, Pakistan was home to the largest refugee population. For decades, the country won much praise for giving sanctuary to vulnerable people who had to flee their homes. When far wealthier countries showed a callous indifference towards those people seeking safety — tightening border controls while pleading lack of capacity — the example of Pakistan shamed them.
Now, however, the Pakistani government risks squandering that moral standing and courting notoriety, for planning what might be one of the largest forcible returns of refugees in modern history. Several times, it has imposed unfeasible deadlines for the Afghan refugees’ return, triggering fresh waves of harassment from the police and other officials. Each time, an extension has been reluctantly granted.
For Afghan refugees, these reprieves do not provide any relief. They merely serve to prolong their anxiety. Ever since the Soviet invasion of their homeland, their lives have hinged precariously on geopolitics in the region. An elusive peace in Afghanistan in the midst of an escalating conflict has stopped them returning voluntarily. In Pakistan, they still languish in the limbo of their camps, denied their rights in a country they know better than their own.
The latest attempts to send Afghan refugees back across the border speak to transparently political motives. As retired Gen Abdul Qadir Baloch, the Minister for States and the Frontier Regions, admitted, clashes along the border and the killing of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour further soured relations with Kabul and led to the latest push against Afghan refugees.
Afghan refugees in Pakistan continue to languish in limbo.
This is scarcely the first time that Afghan refugees are being punished for Islamabad’s anger at Kabul. As a Human Rights Watch report documented, after the massacre of more than 100 children at the Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014, the police descended on Afghan refugee camps, harassing their occupants, even beating them and subjecting them to other ill treatment.
Long subject to routine harassment, including the solicitation of bribes, the refugees were made a focus for reprisals after the armed group that attacked the school was traced to Afghanistan.
In its haste to settle scores, the government appears to be forgetting is that it has a responsibility to protect and ensure the rights of all people living within its territory. Although it has agreed with its Afghan counterparts that voluntary repatriation — which has already seen nearly four million Afghans return since 2002 — should continue, refugees in Pakistan must have their human rights fully respected.
Attacking a group of refugees because they happen to be from the same country where armed groups that carry out vile atrocities are based is a cruel and discriminatory practice unworthy of any state.
Many refugees across the world say that they would choose repatriation — if it was safe. In the case of Pakistan’s 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees, the situation is complicated by the fact that many of them have spent the majority of their lives in Pakistan. Many have married in Pakistan, and have children who know no other country.
For repatriation to be lawful, it must be truly voluntary — that is, people must have made a free and informed decision to return.
At the moment, the conflict in Afghanistan is widening, not winding down. Regular bomb attacks are punctuating the Afghan Taliban’s advances, even as more territory in both the north and the south of the country continues to slip out of the government’s control. Following the loss of a district in the north to the Taliban, Helmand province is now besieged.
As per an Amnesty International report this year, the number of internally displaced people in Afghanistan has doubled over the past three years to more than a million. During the same period, international aid to the country has halved as donors have shifted their attentions elsewhere following the withdrawal of their troops.
In overcrowded and unsanitary camps, Afghanistan’s internally displaced fight for their survival. They are denied adequate supplies of food, medical aid, and opportunities to pursue education and employment. Some of them are returnees from Pakistan, seemingly condemned to spend their lives shuffling across borders, from camp to camp.
Forcibly expelling refugees from Pakistan would be a clear breach of the principle of non-refoulement: the right not to be sent back to a country where one might be at real risk of serious human rights violations.
For years, successive Pakistani leaders have rightly affirmed that their country’s security is contingent on the security of Afghanistan. But the current refugee policy could undermine not just Afghanistan’s security, but Pakistan’s as well.
Putting so many people in harm’s way, either at home or across the border, doesn’t make states safer. Indeed, it invites ruinous consequences that could be difficult to roll back, and damage to the country’s image that will be difficult to efface.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, August 21st, 2016