HRCP fears Afghan deportations can trigger a ‘humanitarian crisis’

Published October 31, 2023
In this photo taken on October 30, 2023, Afghan refugees walk inside a fenced corridor after arriving from Pakistan at the Afghanistan-Pakistan Torkham border in Nangarhar province. — AFP
In this photo taken on October 30, 2023, Afghan refugees walk inside a fenced corridor after arriving from Pakistan at the Afghanistan-Pakistan Torkham border in Nangarhar province. — AFP

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) on Tuesday expressed concern over the government’s decision to expel undocumented foreigners — most of whom comprise Afghans — and urged the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to ensure protection for Afghan refugees.

Earlier this month, the government gave an ultimatum to all undocumented immigrants to leave Pakistan by Oct 31 or else, risk imprisonment and deportation to their respective countries.

While the decision had prompted criticism from Afghanistan and several other quarters, the caretakers insist that it is not aimed at any particular ethnic group.

There are more than two million undocumented Afghans living in Pakistan, with at least 600,000 of them leaving Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover in August 2021.

In a letter addressed to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi today, a copy of which is available with Dawn.com, HRCP Chairperson Hina Jilani said the move to expel Afghans could “trigger a humanitarian crisis”.

“The decision amounts to forced repatriation, which is not recognised under international customary law, and will invariably affect vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers, which include women, children, the elderly, persons living with disabilities, persons from low-income groups, and Afghans at risk because of their professions — many of whom fled Afghanistan after the Afghan Taliban took over the government in August 2021,” the letter stated.

It noted that despite criticism from human rights organisations, the government had not shown any signs of reconsidering its decision and had gone so far as to prevent civil society members from expressing their views on the matter.

It highlighted that the interim interior minister had announced that the current phase of expulsion would be followed by the deportation of foreign with legitimate documents, including Afghans who hold proof-of-residence cards.

The HRCP, the letter went on to say, had also received reports of harassment, intimidation, extortion and arrests of Afghans while media reports suggested that 77 Afghan refugees with legitimate documents had already been deported.

“While HRCP recognises that the government may have legitimate security concerns tied to a small number of foreign nationals resident in the country illegally, we believe that humanitarian concerns must override security interests,” it said, adding that such a decision did not fall within the mandate of an unelected government.

“We also believe that refugees and asylum seekers should be allowed to thrive along with their hosts and that the rights of both are not mutually exclusive.”

The commission further regretted that Pakistan was not a signatory of the 1951 Refugees Conventions, lacked a national asylum system and addressed issues pertaining to Afghan refugees through “ad hoc and discretionary policies”.

It highlighted that Pakistan was bound by universal customary laws of non-refoulment which prohibit deporting anyone to a place where they would face a real risk of persecution, torture, ill-treatment or life threats.

“HRCP believes that the Pakistan government’s actions in this context amount to violations of international customary law, given that the prevailing circumstances in Afghanistan are not at all conducive to the safe return and reintegration of vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers,” the letter said.

It subsequently urged the UNHCR to call on the government to extend the Nov 1 deadline, ensure that no migrants or refugees with legitimate documentation were expelled, ensure refugees were treated with dignity and facilitate their access to documentation.

The letter also suggested that the government should devise a “rights-based domestic policy” on refugees, revisit the “flawed” Foreigners Act of 1946 and sign the 1951 Refugees Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.

NCSW issues urgent stay appeal for vulnerable Afghan women

Meanwhile, the National Commission on the Status of Women, in a letter written to Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti today, said there were approximately 2.5 million widows in Afghanistan, some of whom came to Pakistan in search of livelihood.

“These women are journalists, doctors, software engineers, and others who are undocumented due to various circumstances beyond their control,” it stated.

Quoting unofficial sources, the commission said there were around 30,000 Afghan women at risk. “These women sought refuge in Pakistan due to the inhuman treatment of women in their country,” it said, expressing concerns that their “compelled return” to Afghanistan posed threats of persecution, abuse and death.

The letter urged Bugti to review the cases of undocumented Afghan women on an individual basis taking into account specific challenges and vulnerabilities.

“By doing so, we can ensure that those who genuinely need protection are not forced back into a highly perilous and dangerous situation,” it added.

Deadline and repatriation plan

The decision to expel undocumented aliens was taken in an apex committee meeting headed by caretaker Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar and attended by Chief of Army Staff General Asim Munir, among others. The committee also decided that movement across the border would be subject to passports and visas, while electronic Afghan identity cards (or e-tazkiras) would only be accepted until October 31.

With the deadline set to expire, nearly 100,000 illegal Afghan immigrants have voluntarily gone back to their country from the Torkham and Chaman border crossings over the past month, officials told Dawn.

Earlier today, caretaker Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti said Pakistan will start a crackdown on undocumented immigrants, including hundreds of thousands of Afghan nationals, from Nov 2.

“Only two days are left for a voluntary return,” he said in a video-recorded statement, adding that the Nov 1 deadline set for the voluntary return will expire tomorrow.

From Nov 2 onward, he said, “Our lengthy and gradual operation will start,” ensuring that, “We are not deporting any refugees. Only those who are completely illegal will leave Pakistan.”

Bugti said those leaving voluntarily will be assisted by the government at temporary centres set up to house the immigrants.

“We will try to provide them food and health facilities for two to three days at the holding centres,” the interior minister added.


Additional input from Reuters

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