Deporting refugees

Published February 19, 2017

BY expelling millions of Afghans, Pakistan is engaged in one of the world’s “largest unlawful mass forced return of refugees”. From Fortress Europe’s human rights violations on refugees to Donald Trump’s Muslim ban, anti-refugee trends are at a global peak. Yet whilst the Syrian refugee crisis and Trump’s anti-Muslim policies generate moral outrage in Pakistan, there is no parallel condemnation of Pakistan’s mistreatment of its own Afghan refugees. Instead, Pakistan’s conflation of refugees with terrorism is used to justify forced expulsions — on Twitter, on TV talk shows, and by local and national officials.

This week the Human Rights Watch reports that in the second half of 2016, deportation threats and police abuses pushed out 365,000 of Pakistan’s 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees and over 200,000 of the country’s estimated one million undocumented Afghans. This is a process that has been building up for a number of years. It intensified after the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan’s 2014 Army Public School attack in Peshawar.

The bloody wave of terrorist attacks in Sehwan Sharif, Lahore, Quetta and Peshawar this week has seen claims of TTP sanctuaries inside Afghanistan resurfacing. The presence of TTP bases in Afghanistan, however, do not justify attacks on Pakistan’s Afghan population — most of it has lived in Pakistan for nearly 40 years. One cannot forget that Afghans have also been killed and maimed in terrorist attacks in Pakistan.

In Peshawar, I interviewed Mohammad, an Afghan who was violently scarred after a bomb blast in the city. Yet this survivor of terrorism said he felt like he was now being treated as a terrorist himself.

Afghan refugees are vilified in Pakistan.

The dehumanisation of Afghan refugees to the level of caricatures of ‘criminality’ and ‘terror’ — much like Trump’s figure of the Muslim refugee — does not reflect the facts. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Afghans are said to be responsible for 90pc of crimes, but Afghans are actually represented in only 1.27pc of the criminal cases that land up in KP courts. The misleading information we read about Afghan refugees deflects our attention from the longer-term factors that shape crime and terrorism in Pakistan, including state patronage of factions within the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban.

Pakistan’s treatment of Afghans reflects its deteriorating relationship with Kabul. By putting pressure on Afghans to leave, huge humanitarian, economic and infrastructural pressures are placed on Kabul. But, as most Afghans are expelled — on bitter terms — the poor relationship between Afgha­nistan and Pakistan merely intensifies.

Moreover, the movement of Afghans to Europe continues. Afghans already constitute the second largest refugee population in Europe, despite claims by Western deportation regimes that Afghanistan is a ‘safe country’.

In June 2016, I interviewed Shabnam, a 25-year-old Afghan woman, and her husband Saleem in a refugee housing facility in Berlin. Both had been born and raised in Peshawar. Shabnam was sitting on a bench in the canteen trying to feed her three-year-old daughter. They had just arrived in Germany after a dangerous journey that spanned Iran, Turkey, and southern Europe. Fatigued and unsure of their position in Germany, Shabnam said, “There was so much pressure on us to leave [Pakistan]: every single day our men would be harassed by the police. And every time there was a [bomb] blast we were blamed and it [the harassment] got worse. Pakistan was our home. It is all I have ever known ... Our friends and neighbours are Pakistani. We could not go to Afghanistan. We have nothing there. So we paid our way to come to Europe.”

The ideal solution would be an amnesty that allows registered Afghan refugees to become legal Pak­istani citizens; there are global precedents. Afghans would be more invested in the state, and one would hope more protected by it, although Pakistan’s treatment of its own citizens (the poor, women, minority groups, activists, peasants, Fata IDPs, etc) is not always a source of optimism. Yet the state as well as Baloch political parties and the MQM in Karachi are opposed to the Afghan refugee naturalisation. The UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, also focuses on repatriation rather than working on individual refugee needs.

At the very least, Pakistan — which proudly describes itself as the one of the world’s most important refugee host states — should sign the UN’s international refugee conventions (which explicitly forbid forced expulsions) and treat Afghans according to the principles of basic human rights and dignity. Without this, it will damage its own reputation, deepening the fissures between Islamabad and Kabul, and turning upside down the lives of millions of those who have called Pakistan home for nearly 40 years.

Trump’s anti-refugee and deportation policies are understood for the fascist political posturing that they are. Yet Pakistan appears to be no different. Outrage over US polices has no meaning when millions of Afghans are being forced to leave.

The writer has authored the forthcoming book Afghan Refugees in Pakistan.

Published in Dawn February 19th, 2017



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