KARACHI: Haji Nadir, an Uzbek-Afghan carpet weaver from Afghan Camp in Gadap Town, has switched professions recently.
He had moved his carpet workshop from Northern Bypass to Al-Asif Square, hoping for safety in the heavy Afghan presence, but custom dwindled as the crackdown on refugees increased and he was forced to shut it down.
The carpet weaver now sells vegetables at the New Sabzi Mandi and plans to leave for Kunduz by the end of Ramazan.
Sitting inside a general store in a congested lane of the Afghan Camp, Haji Nadir says he is leaving to “avoid being disrespected in any way”.
Despite an extension in the deadline for repatriation and a new policy that requires authorities to document unregistered refugees rather than imprison them, those living at the camp reportedly continue to face harassment at the hands of law enforcement agencies that appear to have missed the memo.
Most of these reports come from West and Central districts, says Sikander Mehmood, an advocate and field manager working with an advocacy group, SHARP.
In the aftermath of an earlier push for repatriation, as many as 150 families of Afghan refugees moved back to Afghanistan over the past five months, Ismat Khan Durrani, a transporter and member of the Afghan community, says. The tales of harassment run parallel.
Mehmood says his organisation has helped release nearly 300 Afghan refugees from prison over the past two months. Of these, he says, 200 were tried under the Foreigner’s Act 1946, but most cases were disposed of for want of evidence.
SHARP is an advocacy group and legal aid implementing partner of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). It has legal aid groups across Pakistan, except for Balochistan where another group helps with legal aid for Afghans.
“We appear in court on behalf of the Afghans and present their case. The charge of undocumented Afghans is proven false if they are registered with the UNHCR,” adds Mehmood.
Suspicion and arrests
The harassment which the shopkeepers of Afghan descent speak of is obvious at the Al-Asif Square bazaar, where most of the refugees from northern Afghanistan work.
According to Haji Nadir, who now spends most of his time teaching carpet weaving to anyone who wants to learn, police constables mostly arrest shopkeepers over suspicion and leave them “after demanding Rs10,000 to Rs15,000”.
According to Ismat Khan, the demand increases depending on the “type of case” a person has been arrested for.
“So, if someone is suspected of killing a police officer or aiding the Taliban they are charged extra thousands [of rupees] to shut the case off.”
Mehmood adds that not many people, including some within the authorities, are aware of the new policy which was introduced in February.
“The policy says that undocumented refugees will be documented. Police arrest them on the pretext that the orders of their repatriation are under way and so the illegal ones need to be arrested as they hold a criminal record as well.
“We don’t represent the ones with a proven criminal record. But do help those who are registered, hold valid documents and still face harassment,” he adds.
There are up to 90,000 registered Afghans in Karachi, according to Mehmood. “The number of Afghan refugees in Pakistan is approximately 1.3 million, as 400,000 Afghans were repatriated in the last one year,” he adds. A stipend fee of $150 per head was initially offered by the UNHCR to each repatriating family.
It was further increased to $200 and then $400 in the last year. Since the Pak-Afghan border opened in April, however, the amount is once again $200 per head, Mehmood says.
Ismat Khan adds that between 50 and 60 refugees leave Pakistan every other day for Kunduz, Herat, Kabul and Kandahar. Also, despite the repatriation and a decrease in the number of Afghan refugees, there are an equal number of undocumented Afghans (approximately 1.3 million) who the government wants to document based on the new policy.
Asked about the increasing cases of harassment in this area, Malir SSP Rao Anwar claims having no knowledge of anyone being harassed.
“No one has ever come to me with a complaint, so I don’t know who is being harassed and where.”
Explaining further, he adds, “Please send any [one] being harassed to my office and I’ll personally look into the case. There are clear orders from both the inspector general and the deputy inspector general not to harass any innocent or legally documented Afghan during search operations and the repatriation process.”
He says that over the past two years, “as many as 14 Afghans accused of rape, robbery and attempted murders were killed”.
When asked if those people were tried in courts, he insists that they were, and that “the police only go after those holding an illegal status or if they’re involved in criminal activity”.
Caught between a rock and a hard place, Ismat Khan and Haji Nadir have to leave the country where they spent the last 35 years. “We are not accepted by the Afghans on the other side. They have an equal amount of hatred for us as well,” Ismat Khan says.
“We are called the children of Zia over there,” adds Haji Nadir. “We are mocked and asked to go back to our land.”
Published in Dawn, April 11th, 2017