Pakistan must consider risks to returning Afghans, say UN agencies

Published October 8, 2023
UNHCR and IOM warned that Afghanistan is experiencing a severe humanitarian crisis with several human rights challenges, particularly for women and girls.—Reuters / file
UNHCR and IOM warned that Afghanistan is experiencing a severe humanitarian crisis with several human rights challenges, particularly for women and girls.—Reuters / file

• Islamabad asked to ensure protection for the vulnerable; HRCP slams harassment of Afghans
• Fazl opposes govt repatriation plan, claims even those with paperwork being targeted

ISLAMABAD / PESHAWAR: The international humanitarian community has called on Pakistan to continue extending protection to all vulnerable Afghans who have sought safety in the country, as they could be at imminent risk if forced to return to Afghanistan.

This concern was also echoed by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, who said that refugees’ right to shelter, healthcare and legal counsel must be protected and slammed reports that Afghan refugee settlements were being razed and their occupants summarily evicted.

A major political player, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, also waded into the issue on Saturday, voicing his opposition to the ongoing drive to repatriate Afghans from the country and claiming that even those with the requisite paperwork were being hauled away in an indiscriminate crackdown.

Meanwhile, action against illegal immigrants — mostly Afghan nationals — continued across the country, with provincial authorities and security agencies compiling data on unregistered Afghan refugees, which would be submitted to the interior ministry.

There are 23 days left to go before the October 31 deadline set by the government for the voluntary return of foreigners who are staying illegally in Pakistan, and a number of families have already crossed the border back. APP quoted a Torkham border official as saying that around two hundred Afghan families had returned to their country over the past four days.

Around 128 illegal Afghan migrants have been rounded up in Quetta so far, while PPI reported that Islamabad police rounded up 38 Afghan nationals in an operation in Blue Area on Saturday.

Citing figures from the Afg­han Commissionerate in Pes­h­awar, APP reported that 956,720 Afghan refugees are living in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, while only 648,968 Afghan refugees are registered in the province. According to an official, 885,000 Afghan refugees are living in settled areas and 22,390 are based in the tribal districts, while over 300,000 refugees were not registered with the commissionerate so far.

UN, IOM concern

In the first UN reaction to Pakistan’s repatriation policy, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the International Organisa­tion for Migration said that Afghanistan was going through a severe humanitarian crisis with several human rights challenges, particularly for women and girls.

The joint appeal said that such plans would have serious implications for all who have been forced to leave the country and may face serious protection risks upon return.

However, both agencies ack­no­wledged the government’s sovereign prerogative over domestic policies, its need to manage populations on its territory, and its obligations to ensure public safety and security.

Recalling Pakistan’s “generous hospitality towards Afghan nationals for over four decades, despite challenges”, UNHCR and IOM reiterated their call that all returns should be voluntary, safe and dignified – without any pressure, to ensure protection for those seeking safety.

In 2021, UNHCR had issued a non-return advisory, calling for a bar on the forced return of Afghan nationals. This was renewed in 2023.

But Pakistan is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, nor does it have a national asylum system in place.

However, the country has sig­ned an accord with Afghanistan and UNHCR, allowing the refugee agency to provide proof of registration (PoR) cards to Afg­han applicants. Once in possession of a PoR, an Afghan is entitled to reside in Pakistan legally.

HRCP slams harassment

Responding to reports that residents of Afghan origin were being evicted summarily from their homes and settlements of Afghan refugees were being razed, the HRCP demanded an end to this “blatantly xenophobic” practice.

“The government must understand that the forcible deportation of vulnerable Afghans is neither sound nor practical: it will put many of them at risk in their home country and is likely to separate families, including women and children,” it said in a statement.

“Pakistan would be better served if it were to expedite the registration of refugees and legislate to protect their rights as residents,” the commission concluded.

Fazl opposes treatment of Afghans

Addressing a JUI-F social media convention in Peshawar, Maulana Fazlur Rehman said that Pakistan could not afford war or bitterness with its neighbours. On one hand, he said, relations with Iran were not exemplary, while on the other hand, bitterness with Afghanistan was rising day by day.

Afghanistan has been ravaged due to four decades of war and peace was only recently established there, he said, adding that in such a situation, the Afghan rulers could not be held to the same standard as Pakistan. “We have to wait for some time,” he said.

The government was claiming that it wanted to repatriate all illegal aliens from the country, however only Pashtuns were being targeted in this drive. “Are Pashtuns the only illegal aliens in the country,” he asked.

“If you keep someone as guest for a year and at the end of year kick him out of your house, he will not be thankful for the yearlong stay, but will complain about the act of being kicked out,” Fazl said.

He alleged that police officers and bureaucrats were swooping down on Afghans “like vultures” to deprive them of their properties and money.

Besides, at a time when Pakistan is already facing many problems, this would only compound issues, he said, adding that his party was ready to play their role for the resolution of issues with Afghanistan.

He said his party had proposed the creation of a joint Pak-Afghan commission to resolves issues between both countries.

Published in Dawn, October 8th, 2023

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