Police abuses, cash grants and political tensions have led to the world's largest unlawful forced return of refugees.
In a damning report on the "forced returns" of Afghan refugees released Monday, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the Pakistani government to avoid recreating conditions in 2017 that coerced the involuntary return of refugees to Afghanistan in 2016.
In its report titled "Pakistan Coercion, UN Complicity: The Mass Forced Return of Afghan Refugees", the HRW asks the government of Pakistan to end police abuse, revert to its earlier policy of extending Proof of Registration cards by at least two years, avoid creating anxiety about deportation of Afghans and allow undocumented Afghan refugees seeking protection to request and obtain it in Pakistan.
The HRW conducted 115 interviews with refugee returnees in Afghanistan and refugees and undocumented Afghans in Pakistan.
The primary research was supplemented by UN reports presenting the reasons thousands of Afghans gave for returning to Afghanistan. The findings suggested that Pakistani pressure on Afghan refugees left many of them with no choice but to leave Pakistan in 2016.
The HRW also holds the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) complicit in the “coerced return” of Afghan refugees, and calls on it to "speak out as necessary and challenge any repeat in 2017 of the appalling and unlawful pressure Pakistan placed on Afghans in 2016, that coerced many to return to danger and destitution in Afghanistan in such massive numbers."
According to the report, Pakistan has hosted over a million Afghan refugees for most of the last 40 years.
In the second half of 2016, 365,000 of the 1.5 million registered refugees were “pushed out by a toxic combination of deportation threats and police abuses.”
About 200,000 of the 1m undocumented Afghan refugees in Pakistan returned to their country over the same period.
The HRW terms the exodus "the world’s largest unlawful mass forced return of refugees in recent times."
Pakistan is bound by the universally-binding customary law of refoulement preventing the return of people to a place where they would face risk of persecution, torture, ill treatment or threat to life.
Pakistani authorities, however, made it clear in public statements they would like to see similar numbers of refugees return to Afghanistan in 2017, the HRW said.
The statements came at a time the Afghan conflict has killed and wounded more civilians than at any other time since 2009, displaced at least 1.5m people and left a third of the population destitute, according to the HRW.
There have been no new Afghan refugees registered in Pakistan since 2007 despite lack of meaningful improvement in human rights conditions in Afghanistan.
Additionally, the UNHCR lacks the capacity to register and process the claims of tens of hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers. The UNHCR in Dec 2016 warned that the massive number of returns could “develop into a major humanitarian crisis”.
UNHCR Spokesperson Ms Duniya Aslam Khan, quoted by the HRW, has said the UNHCR does not promote returns to Afghanistan given the enduring conflict and its limited absorption capacity to cope with returning refugees.
In a response to questions posed by Dawn.com, Ms Khan denied that the return of refugees from Pakistan is refoulement.
"Afghan refugees are making tough decisions in less than ideal circumstances. UNHCR, shares the concerns of Human Rights Watch (HRW) regarding the pressures on Afghans in the late summer  which affected the repatriation last year. We also strongly refute any accusation that UNHCR was complicit in mass forced refugee returns from Pakistan," she said.
The ‘voluntary’ return of Afghan refugees was ramped up in the wake of the Army Public School attack in December 2014, according to the HRW.
The National Action Plan (NAP) proposed to counter terrorism included a policy to register and repatriate Afghans from Pakistan despite the fact that the government’s own investigations did not find “any significant Afghan involvement in acts of terrorism”, and the SAFRON minister had stated there was no evidence that registered Afghan refugees had ever been involved in “terrorism related” activities in Pakistan, the HRW said.
NAP also included a pledge to register all undocumented Afghans in the country in July-August 2015, which never happened, according to the report.
The consequences of NAP for Afghan refugees included a wave of police abuse, such as the unlawful use of force, arbitrary arrests and detentions, extortion and demolition of houses.
However, Afghans interviewed by the HRW said that police abuses had decreased significantly during the last few months of 2015.
In addition to “several deadly security incidents”, deteriorating bilateral relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan sparked hostility towards the Afghan population in Pakistan.
Trade deals signed between Afghanistan, Iran and India in May 2016, the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s joint inauguration of the ‘Friendship Dam’ in Kabul in June 2016, and the killing of an Afghan soldier and Pakistani major the same month at the Torkham border are cited by the HRW as political developments that hurt the Afghan population in Pakistan.
Following closer Afghan-India ties, large numbers of Afghans described to the UN a shift in local attitudes towards them. The HRW said that although returnees described how they had been welcomed by Pakistanis for decades, the Torkham border clashes changed locals’ attitudes towards them, with people telling them to go home and calling them “sons of Hindus”.
According to the report, the UNHCR under pressure from Pakistani authorities, increased the cash grant given to returning Afghan refugees to $400 from $200 in June 2016 in an attempt to incentivise Afghan refugees to return to their country. This is one among many other coercive factors described by the HRW that 'pushed' many Afghan refugees to return to Afghanistan.
UNHCR Spokesperson Duniya Aslam Khan denied the HRW’s allegations, saying, "Not a single returnee – out of more than 4,500 interviewed upon arrival – has cited the cash grant as a primary factor in their decision to return."
This claim, however, is countered by the HRW which says "for many returning refugees, the UNHCR cash grant increase was a critical factor in persuading them to escape Pakistan’s abuses."
Ms. Khan also denied that Pakistani authorities pressured the UNHCR to take steps to help increase the rate of Afghan refugee returns.
"The UNHCR decided to increase the cash grant in order to support the immediate humanitarian needs of returning refugees. Refugees spent the money on transport, food and shelter," she said.
In addition to police abuses, other ‘coercive factors’ described by Afghans in the HRW report include increasingly insecure legal status, exclusion of children from Pakistani schools, shutting down of Afghan refugee schools, and landlords charging increased rents for residential and business premises.
The report includes quotes from interviews detailing police abuses, arbitrary detentions and discrimination faced by refugees on a daily basis.
A 32-year-old man in Peshawar's Afghan Kaluni area told HRW: "About one month after Torkham, they said many times on television we should leave straight away. Then they drove around in cars with loudspeakers in my neighbourhood with the same message, two or three times a day. Then we saw the message in newspapers and the local mosques said the same."
Another jarring account comes from a 27-year-old man living in refugee camp Number 4 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Badaber district. He recalled how police entered his family’s home without asking and detained the men in his family. "The women were all very afraid. There were about 200 other Afghans at the [police] station when we arrived. They held us there all day… I saw in a newspaper that the police would do more search operations and that they were going to put Afghans in prison. So we knew we had to leave."
The HRW in its report called upon the Pakistani government to avoid recreating conditions coercing refugees to leave the country, such as police abuses and deportation threats.
It also asked the government to further refugee permits until at least March 31, 2019, and to commit to announcing latest by Oct 31, 2018, whether authorities plan to extend the cards by another two years beyond March 2019.
The HRW urged the UNHCR to publicly challenge any further pressure that Pakistan places on refugees to leave and to suspend its participation in the Tripartite Agreement with Afghanistan and Pakistan as continued participation implies the current forced returns are voluntary.
Author of the HRW report, Gerry Simpson, said: The UN refugee agency should end the fiction that the mass forced return of Afghan refugees from Pakistan is, in fact, mass voluntary return."
The report also recommended the UNHCR clarify its position on refoulement and various forms of support to refugees.
Mr Simpson, addressing international donors, called on them to "step in to press the government and UN to protect the remaining Afghan refugees in Pakistan."