Responding to criticism of a photograph of minors behind bars that went viral on social media recently, Sindh Information Minister Sharjeel Memon on Friday said 129 Afghan female illegal immigrants were jailed in the province — with 178 children — but insisted the minors were not under arrest.
The media talk comes after a picture of jailed children, smiling behind bars went viral over social media yesterday, triggering fury from activists and politicians.
Addressing a press conference in Karachi, the PPP leader clarified that the 178 children “staying with their mothers in the jails are not under arrest”.
“The law states that if any child is under the age of seven years, they may be allowed to stay with their mother in jail,” he said. “Where will the children go when their father is also in jail?”
Memon insisted that the viral picture was not from any jail in Sindh.
“Let me tell once again that the picture is not from any Sindh jail,” he said. “I’m repeating that Sindh doesn’t have any jail where this picture was taken.”
He maintained that the children were kept as “inmates and not as prisoners”.
“No child is in jail because of the government. Whenever they are arrested, the FIA (Federal Investigation Agency) takes them to the court.”
Memon said courts had allowed the children to stay with their mothers in jail.
“If a person lives illegally in any country, the government takes action and deals with them according to the law,” Memon said, adding that Nigerian and Bangladeshi illegal immigrants were also imprisoned throughout the country.
He said out of the 129 arrested females, 75 were under-trial prisoners whereas 54 were convicted for two months.
“Their conviction will end in January,” Memon said. “Nobody has been sentenced to jail for more than two months.”
The minister added that the 54 females will be deported from the country after their release, along with their children, following the directives of the federal government.
During the press conference, the minister also showed a video of a women’s jail in Karachi where children can be seen reading books and playing at what looked like a school located inside the prison.
“They study, they are provided food and medical facilities,” Memon said. “We give open access to the media and they can visit these children with the DIG.”
‘We stand by the tweet’
Lawyer Samar Abbas tweeted yesterday that he and lawyer Moniza Kakar were the refugees’ defence council, adding that the photo was taken at the “city court’s Bakhshi Khana where they (Afghan prisoners) were brought from Karachi Central Jail for a case hearing”.
Talking to Dawn.com over the phone today, Abbas said he photographed the children himself and was a resident of Karachi. “We stand by the tweet. The picture and tweet are authentic.”
Commenting on the Sindh information minister’s denial, the lawyer highlighted that the issue could be addressed once it was acknowledged. “If one delves into the denial of an issue then you can never address it.”
“As I mentioned in the tweet, I met these children when they were brought to the city court’s lock up — commonly known as Bakshi Khana,” Abbas said.
“The children even came today and I went and met them. They were not the same children. Every day there are different children because there are many in number,” he added.
Lawyer Moniza Kakar also confirmed the authenticity of the pictures.
“We stand by the pictures we took in Karachi court’s lockups when we went there regarding the Afghan refugee case,” she told Dawn.com.
“There are some female Afghan refugees languishing in Hyderabad jail as well.”
Kakar clarified that they weren’t against the Sindh government. “We just want the Afghan refugee cases to be expedited. We want to work on their cases.”
She further said the refugees will have to be deported as no other provision is available. “Section 14b of the Foreigners Act can be used by the federal government to deport anyone at any time,” she said.
“Their case might be delayed. We want the case to be looked at on humanitarian grounds.”
‘Absolutely will rectify’
The Prime Minister’s Strategic Reforms Unit head Salman Sufi said a detailed report was received about the number of children who were with their jailed mothers charged with immigration violations or other crimes.
“Strategy is being developed with Ministry of Interior and provinces to change how they are in adult jails due to their dependence on their parents,” he said on Twitter.
Yesterday, Sufi said he had seen the tweet with “heart-wrenching pictures of innocent children behind bars who are advised to be Afghan nationals”.
“We are in process of authentication of the reported horrible ordeal they are in and absolutely will rectify,” he had said.
Following the uproar on social media over the viral picture, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Pakistan tweeted that it was “extremely concerned to see images and reports of the arrest and detention of Afghan refugees in Sindh province, particularly Karachi”.
It appealed that the children should not be punished or criminalised for exercising their fundamental human right to seek asylum“, urging neighboring Afghanistan, including Pakistan, to continue to protect those seeking safety“.
In response to MNA Mohsin Dawar’s tweet yesterday on the issue, the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) responded with a picture of a letter issued by it to the Sindh government on Dec 23, requesting “intervention […] on humanitarian grounds”.
A report released this month by the NCHR in collaboration with the Legal Aid Office (LAO), after a visit by their team to the Karachi Central Prison, said the total number of Afghan women in the Women’s Prison Karachi is 139 while the total number of Afghan children under nine is 165
The report added that the number of Afghan juveniles aged 14-18 kept in the Youth Offenders Industrial School is 111.
It stated that the UNHCR documented 117,547 newly-arrived Afghan refugees between January 2021 and February 2022.
The report highlighted that the Sindh government recently conducted a “combing operation detaining Afghans who did not enter the country legally to clamp down on illegal border crossings”.
It further said that the under-trial and convicted Afghans housed at Central Prison Karachi have been lawfully detained as they do not possess a Proof of Registration (PoR) card nor an Afghan Citizen Card (ACC).
The report stated that as a result of a recent combing operation in Sindh, 277 Afghans are imprisoned in Youthful Offenders Industrial School (YOIS), Women’s Prison, and Central Prison Karachi — charged with violating the Foreigners Act 1946 — a law which empowers authorities to deport foreigners lacking proper documentation.
According to structured interviews conducted with 143 Afghan prisoners by the LAO, the most commonly cited reason for Afghan women arriving in Pakistan was better medical facilities whilst male adults and juveniles stated that the availability of better work opportunities as their primary reason.