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Pakistan steps up crackdown on Afghan refugees, adds new restrictions

‘We are treated like we are criminals.’

A group of Afghan refugees are pictured protesting in Islamabad, Pakistan, on May 19, 2022, demanding the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to register them and help their asylum seeking process in Europe. Raja Imran/Pacific Press/Sipa USA
Afghans who escaped to Pakistan after the Taliban took control of their country in August 2021 hold a protest in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, in May 2022 calling on the UN's refugee agency to speed up their asylum claims.

Despite the worsening economic and humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, the Pakistani government is intensifying its crackdown on Afghan refugees, adding a string of new movement restrictions on top of a wave of detentions and deportations.

 

On Saturday, some 331 Afghans were returned from Pakistan, including 70 who had been imprisoned for lacking documentation – just the latest to be sent home as Pakistan doubles down on its hardline approach. 

 

In recent months, thousands of Afghan refugees, including women and children, have been rounded up and imprisoned for overstaying their visas or lacking adequate documentation. More than 1,000 are currently imprisoned and at least three have died in custody in as many months.

 

This week, the government announced a new policy curtailing the movement of Afghan citizens by requiring them to register with police if they travel between cities or provinces.  

 

Refugee advocates say the situation in Pakistan, where millions of Afghan refugees were also affected by last year’s catastrophic floods, has deteriorated rapidly in recent months.

 

Moniza Kakar, a lawyer assisting Afghan refugees in Pakistan’s largest city of Karachi, has shared evidence on Twitter of police binding children with rope, imprisoning them for months, and arresting even those who hold proper documentation.

 

Interviewed by The New Humanitarian, Kakar said the arrests have not stopped people coming. “More and more I see human rights defenders, people coming in for business, and a lot of young girls… since the Taliban have banned education. They put their heads in my lap and weep,” she said, adding that most people cross simply because they have no other choice. 

 

More than 600,000 Afghans have fled to neighbouring Pakistan since the Taliban came to power in August 2021, bringing the number of Afghan refugees in the country to 3.7 million, only 1.32 million of whom are registered with the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR.

 

At the end of 2022, the Pakistani government announced it would not extend a general amnesty permitting undocumented Afghans to remain in the country.

 

Having arrived on temporary visas, many have found themselves with little option but to overstay as they wait for their asylum claims to be processed by UNHCR – some hoping for resettlement elsewhere, others looking to live and work safely in Pakistan.

 

Last August, UNHCR raised the cash grants it offers to those who agree to voluntarily repatriate to Afghanistan from $250 to $375, or $700 per family, but return numbers have remained relatively small – a little over 6,000 in total in 2022.

 

A dangerous limbo

 

As Pakistan has been turning asylum seekers back, millions in need in Afghanistan have been enduring a brutally cold winter, during which many international aid operations were suspended due to the Taliban’s ban on women working for NGOs.

 

Prior to the Taliban takeover, some three quarters of the Afghan government’s budget came from foreign donors, and the huge outflow of capital since has left the country’s new rulers struggling to provide basic services, especially healthcare.

 

“We were forced to come here. We had full lives back in Afghanistan, but were forced to come here out of necessity, and we’re just asking for some basic honour to live with while our refugee claims are settled.”

 

Droughts, earthquakes, and government budget mismanagement, coupled with rising costs and income declines, has made life harder than ever. Classed as the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, Afghanistan currently has some 28.3 million people needing life-saving assistance, including 20 million who face acute hunger.  

 

Ruqayya,* who left Afghanistan in April 2022, is among the many women who have arrived in Pakistan hoping for a better future. A former gender director for an American organisation, the 25-year-old speaks impeccable English. She interviewed for her job just before the Taliban took over, and negotiated twice the salary that was being offered. “I’m just that good,” she laughed.

 

Her family was unable to obtain a visa via the Pakistani embassy in Afghanistan and so turned to the black market, where a single visa can cost up to $700. While she managed to escape with six family members, her visa is soon set to expire and the Pakistani government has not issued a renewal. Her family’s asylum case is also still pending with UNHCR, which means that once the visa expires they will all enter a dangerous limbo – at risk of arrest and deportation. 

 

“Even with a valid visa, we are treated like we are criminals,” Ruqayya told The New Humanitarian. “We were forced to come here. We had full lives back in Afghanistan, but were forced to come here out of necessity, and we’re just asking for some basic honour to live with while our refugee claims are settled. This is against humanity.”

 

Nader*, a journalist and businessman, fled Afghanistan in February 2022. He left soon after the Taliban came into his home while he was out, and looked through the reports and documentaries he had been working on for various international organisations. Such an action, he said, amounted to an unofficial order to stop his work, or else. 

 

Nader's crime, at least from what he can gather, was to speak to foreign media about the Taliban's repressive policies. "They did not want this information on international news channels," he told The New Humanitarian.

 

With 13 days still left on his Pakistani visa, he entered Pakistan unsure of what else he could do. While he was able to get his visa renewed, his family members weren't, which meant eight months later he had to travel to the border to get an exit stamp on their visa, allowing them to stay 14 more days.

 

Eventually, Nader and his family received visas for Brazil and left in February. Over the course of 11 months in Pakistan, they had yet to be registered as asylum seekers by UNHCR.

 

Read more: Why Afghan refugees in Brazil are making dangerous US journeys

 

While initial exiles after the Taliban takeover included journalists, activists, members of vulnerable minorities, and those employed by Western governments and foreign organisations, thousands now continue to leave each day out of economic desperation.

 

The asylum claim backlog

 

UNHCR’s role is of particular importance because it is the only body or organisation that grants legal refugee status in Pakistan – the country is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention 1951, which would legally compel it to protect those fleeing danger.

 

Pakistan has, however, signed an accord with Afghanistan and UNHCR that allows the UN’s refugee agency to give Afghan refugees Proof of Registration (PoR) documents entitling them to stay in Pakistan.

 

The only form of protection from police harassment for refugees in Pakistan is this PoR card, but they only receive it once UNHCR has heard their asylum case and adjudicated them to be a refugee. But the processing backlog is long, and these delays in interviews effectively put many refugees in danger, particularly since the two-year visa amnesty expired at the end of 2022. 

 

The waits mean many Afghan refugees, especially those who came in the past year, are now living illegally in the country. Those with less financial privilege are thrown in jail, while others bribe and pay off police officials when asked to produce registration cards.

 

In a petition on behalf of 100 asylum seekers filed in January with Pakistan’s National Commission on Human Rights (NCHR), Islamabad lawyer Umer Ijaz Gilani wrote that both UNHCR and the Pakistani government had “failed to do justice to these refugees”. 

 

“This is the hypocrisy of UNHCR, that on the one hand they claim to be a protection agency for refugees, and on the other they seem to have completely stopped processing refugee cases in Pakistan.” 

 

With similar suits having already failed in Pakistan’s court system, Gilani is pressing the commission to compel parliament to consider legal changes that would improve the situation for refugees. 

 

Last month, the commission responded, asking Gilani how many people had been impacted by Pakistan’s policies – though it has yet to make any concrete changes or recommendations.  

 

“The problem is that UNHCR is the main agency that processes refugee claims in Pakistan,” Gilani told The New Humanitarian, adding that “there is no other mechanism” to determine an Afghan asylum seeker’s status in the country.

 

“This is the hypocrisy of UNHCR, that on the one hand they claim to be a protection agency for refugees, and on the other they seem to have completely stopped processing refugee cases in Pakistan.” 

 

UNHCR declined to address Gilani’s allegations head on, but said it has long been in discussions with the Pakistani government on managing asylum applications, and pointed out that it operates hotlines and dedicated email accounts to assist Afghans.

 

“We understand that Afghans who have fled to Pakistan in recent months are in a precarious situation, made more difficult by the lack of a means to apply for asylum and regularise their stay in Pakistan and in turn hold a document that enables them to legally reside in the country,” said Aoife McDonnell, a spokesperson for the agency.

 

“UNHCR deeply sympathises with the anxiety and frustration, and understands the difficulties that families uprooted from their homes are facing,” she told The New Humanitarian by email.

 

As the government-appointed human rights body, NCHR lacks enforcement abilities but has significant power to compel changes in law and policy.

 

Gilani’s petition asks the rights commission to direct UNHCR to process asylum claims more expeditiously, and to prevent the deportation of Afghans whose claims are currently being processed. 

 

If the commission takes up Gilani’s recommendations, it could greatly improve the lives of people like Nader and Ruqayya who face regular police harassment and struggle to rent homes. Under Pakistan’s current laws, even registered refugees do not have the right to work, while opening a bank account or obtaining a SIM card is difficult. 

 

Close to exhausting their savings and assistance from relatives abroad, refugees like Nader and Ruqayya say they only want permission from the Pakistani government to live with dignity. Speaking of the many difficulties they have faced in Pakistan, Ruqayya said: “What we are going through, we never asked for ourselves.”

 

*Names have been changed for security reasons.

 

Edited by Abby Seiff.

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