A very important topic that is being lost in the crowded media space is
the forced deportation of Afghan refugees by Pakistan. After Islamabad
set October 31st as a deadline for illegal migrants to leave the country or
face arrest as part of a new anti-migrant crackdown, hundreds of
thousands of Afghans have been forced to leave Pakistan. Islamabad
says Afghan nationals are responsible for more than half the 24 suicide
bombings carried out in Pakistan this year, so as a national security
measure the 1.7 million Afghan will be expelled.
In the past week, an average 10,000 Afghans are crossing the border
every day from Pakistan to return to Afghanistan. Almost 200,000
Afghans have already been forcibly deported by Pakistan. Arrests and
detentions have increased and Afghan nationals are charged with
violating the Foreigners Act, a Pakistani law amended in 2016 that
empowers authorities to deport foreigners lacking proper documentation.
Is the international community overlooking Pakistan expelling nearly two
million refugees? With the destruction of their homes, a substantial
number of Afghans are being compelled to move towards a government
that lacks global recognition. Is this a case of collective punishment, and
should measures be taken to address it?
The decision by Pakistan’s caretaker government has drawn widespread
condemnation from human rights groups. Some have been in Pakistan
for decades, some were even born there but without official paperwork
they are now facing expulsion from the country that they call home. The deadline by Pakistani authorities has left Afghan refugees with no
choice, but to make their journey to Afghanistan even as their meagre
belongings are confiscated and their humble mud houses are razed to
the ground. Aid agencies say any forced deportation of Afghans puts
them at a grave risk, with the refugee families sleeping in the open,
without proper shelter, food or drinking water once they cross the border
to their homelands. A large number of Afghan refugees had arrived in
Pakistan after the takeover of Kabul by the Taliban and were given
temporary residence cards but these are no longer being considered as
valid for stay. Especially worried are the men who have daughters.
These families face huge challenges ahead as Afghanistan is going
through a severe humanitarian crisis, brought on by an economic
stagnation and human rights violations. If the country these refugees are
being forced into is run by an unrecognised government, renowned for
human rights violations is that decision legal or atleast even morally
acceptable? The decision of Pakistan to implement the deportation plan
will have serious implications for those being sent back, as they face an
uncertain future and likely persecution.
In the first phase refugees who are ‘illegal immigrants’ or the ones that
are undocumented are being targeted but the fact is that Pakistan aims
to send back almost all refugees in the second phase even those that
have proof of residency cards or any sort of official documentation. But
even now those with proper documentation are being arrested. Muniza
Kakar, a lawyer who is voluntarily representing Afghan refugees arrested
in Pakistan, says I’ve met up to 400 imprisoned Afghans who had [valid]
visas, but police confiscated their passports and alleged that police are
refusing to return the documents.
Although Pakistan has cited security and equitable resource distribution
as being primary concerns for the forced deportations of immigrants, the
inhumane action is designed to be in such a time frame for it to be hurtful
for the Afghans and with ramifications for the Taliban led government,
with which Islamabad’s relations have nosedived in recent months. The
relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan has not been this low
even at the time of Ashraf Ghani or Hamid Karzai. There was a certain
expectation in Islamabad that after the change of regime in Kabul, the Taliban led government would be more malleable to the demands of the
Pakistani establishment. Expectations have not met reality and
Islamabad has been blaming Kabul for sheltering the Tehreek-i-Taliban
Pakistan (TTP), triggering a major policy shift in Pakistan’s Afghan policy
as far as refugees are concerned.
From Imran Khan, followed by Shahbaz Sharif to the present caretaker
government, all had expected unrealistic deliverables from the Taliban
government in Afghanistan. The Taliban government on its part has in
fact arrested multiple TTP members, and it had indeed provided the
platform for the ceasefire negotiations between the TTP and Pakistan.
Yet Islamabad has failed to recognise these actions and rather than
looking at internal security failures or investments within entities they
have resorted to punishing Afghan refugees.
In terms of international law, Pakistan is not a signatory to the 1951
refugee convention or its 1967 protocol, which confers a legal duty on
countries to protect people fleeing serious harm. Domestically it has
never had a refugee policy and therefore it does not have a law for
refugees or asylum seekers.The only law that Pakistan has is the
foreigners act of 1946 which is a colonial law that needs to be replaced
with the more progressive aspects. So the current deportation of Afghan
refugees legally falls within a grey area even in terms of local laws.
Nevertheless, Pakistan is bound by the international customary law of
non-refoulement, the practice of not forcing refugees or asylum seekers
to return to a country in which they are liable to be subjected to
persecution. It is signatory to a tripartite agreement with Afghanistan and
the UNHCR and since 2003 it has been refreshed. This agreement
accedes that repatriation has to be voluntary; but what we are seeing
now is forced repatriation which does not comply with international
standards of dignity or safety and there is no informed consent for return
and resettlement or reintegration.
But the fact is that this is not the first time that refugees have been used
as a pressure tactic by the Pakistani government. The difference is that
this time the scale of the deportation is both inhumane and
unprecedented. “Refugees should not be punished or criminalised for exercising their fundamental human right to seek asylum”, says Qaiser Khan Afridi, a spokesman for the UNHCR in Pakistan.
This will have long standing repercussions not just for the Afghan
refugees but on the way the ethnic Pashtuns within Pakistan are going to
be treated and perceived in the future. There is already a case of a 17
year old Pakistani Pashtun who was deported to Afghanistan because
he was profiled to be an Afghan. Equally vulnerable are the Afghan
refugees who belong to the Hazara community, a predominantly Shia
Muslim minority group persecuted by the Taliban. Once deported, they
are almost certain to be persecuted.
The arrests and harassment of Afghan refugees by Pakistani authorities
has been going on for well over a year now. Talks about refugees being
sent back were never believed would actually fructify but it is happening.
Farah Zia, the director of the independent Human Rights Commission of
Pakistan, has earlier too condemned the treatment of Afghans,
particularly the arrests of women and children “because their
vulnerability is compounded by their gender and age and lack of
connections with local networks”.
What the Pakistani state has done is coercive and violent. Furthermore,
it is an executive decision that does not fall within the mandate of an
interim unelected caretaker government
The Taliban government has accused Pakistan of conducting a ‘ruthless’
operation against Afghan refugees, without distinguishing between
genders and even arresting women and children. They say they have
committees working “around the clock” to help Afghans by distributing
essential aid. The international community must weigh on the question
that if potential persecution awaits returning refugees, if girls will be
denied school and basic infrastructure is not in place to receive the
thousands of displaced refugees, how can Pakistan be allowed to force
their return to Afghanistan.