KARACHI: The government’s announcement of a short voluntary departure deadline for ‘illegal’ immigrants, most of whom are believed to be Afghans, has drawn criticism from several quarters.
Around 1.3 million Afghans are registered refugees in Pakistan and 880,000 more have legal status to remain, according to the latest United Nations figures.
But caretaker Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti said a further 1.7 million Afghans were in Pakistan illegally.
The announcement prompted a robust response from the Afghanistan Embassy in Islamabad, which accused Punjab and Sindh police of conducting a ‘ruthless’ operation against Afghan refugees, without distinguishing between genders and even arresting women and children.
Embassy decries ‘harassment’ of its nationals; UN official says refugees’ return must be ‘voluntary’
In a statement posted on X (formerly Twitter) on Tuesday, Afghanistan’s embassy said more than 1,000 Afghans have been detained in the past two weeks — half of them despite having a legal right to be in Pakistan.
In addition, Amnesty International has also called out the Pakistani government for creating a space of ‘fear’ for refugees.
“Despite the repeated promises of the Pakistan authorities, the arrest and harassment of Afghan refugees by the police in Pakistan continues,” it said.
Former senator Afrasiab Khattak urged the caretaker government to handle Afghan refugees as if they were “vanquished people”, cautioning that the animosity being sown today will be harvested by future generations.
“The intense hatred being sown today will breed animosity which will be reaped by many generations. The darkest chapter of Pak-Afghan policy,” he wrote on his X account.
Social worker and activist Meena Gabeena highlighted how this policy directly impacts the Hazara community, especially children and women, who have a historical record of enduring various forms of violence from the Taliban simply because they possess a “Hazara face”.
“These stories are real. If you try hearing the ‘illegal immigrants’ also known as innocent people, you’ll know!”, she wrote on X.
Activist Usama Khilji said it is ‘illegal’ to ‘expel asylum seekers’.
“Pakistan government should make exception for the precarious situation Afghans find themselves in Afghanistan under the Taliban government without access to education for girls & no rights for women,” he said in a post on X.
Asfandyar Khan, an officebearer of Mohsin Dawar’s National Democratic Movement (NDM), also condemned the ‘inhumane treatment’ of Afghan refugees. “They [Pakistani government] cannot build peace by bringing them, training them, and then neglecting their rights. They must uphold international laws and human dignity,” he wrote on his X account.
“Many Afghans living in fear of persecution by the Taliban had fled to Pakistan, where they have been subjected to waves of arbitrary detentions, arrests, and the threat of deportation,” the organisation emphasised.
When asked about the new policy, a US State Department spokesperson simply said that Pakistan had been an important partner in the resettlement of Afghans looking to flee or resettle abroad.
But a United Nations official also opposed the deadline. “Any refugee return must be voluntary and without any pressure to ensure protection for those seeking safety,” Qaisar Khan Afridi, an official of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told Anadolu Agency.
He said that the UNHCR was prepared to assist Pakistan in establishing a system for overseeing and recording individuals seeking international protection within its borders and addressing ‘specific vulnerabilities.’
Published in Dawn, October 4th, 2023