Ever since migrants marched out of Africa and spread out across the globe, migration has been a perennial theme in human affairs. Ambitious individuals looking for business opportunities, persecuted social groups fleeing bigotry, or simply the seasonal nomads looking for greener pastures have travelled to foreign lands and made their temporary or permanent homes there. The ebb and flow of the movement of people depends a great deal on the temperament of the host communities. That is why human rights activists are interested in protecting and promoting the rights of immigrants, who may unwittingly find themselves living in hostile host communities.
The treatment of migrants has been the biggest human rights issue in 2015. According to the International Organisation for Migration, more than 750,000 migrants have been detected at the borders of the European Union (EU) between January and November 2015 compared with 280,000 detections for the whole of 2014. The figures do not include those who got in to the EU undetected. Further, more than 2,800 migrants are reported to have died trying to make the crossing this year — altogether 3,406 people have died in the Mediterranean in 2015.
In the background of this global refugee crisis, Pakistan too has had its share of Afghan refugees to deal with. However, a recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, “What are you doing here? Police abuses against Afghans in Pakistan” documents a marked increase in abuses against Afghan refugees in the wake of the APS attack in December 2014. The Pakistan government has a legitimate right to regulate refugees and migrants, however, that has to be done in compliance with international and domestic legal standards. While the security challenges faced by Pakistan from terrorism are real and need to be effectively tackled, the recent tragedy in Paris highlights the need for solidarity and that generalisations must be avoided. The persecution, intimidation and scapegoating of all Afghans living in Pakistan on the pretext of fighting terrorism is not the way forward.
Pakistan has hosted one of the largest displaced populations in the world for a long time. It has been a better host than many other countries and has traditionally welcomed and accommodated refugees. The country has seen a huge influx of Afghans fleeing violence and conflict since the 1970s. The first comprehensive registration of Afghans living in Pakistan, which took place in 2006-07, provided many Afghan refugees with a Proof of Registration (PoR) card, initially valid for three years. The government subsequently extended the validity of the cards several times. The PoR cards are now scheduled to expire on December 31, 2015. The failure to renew these in a timely manner will result in more than two million Afghans living in Pakistan without legal status and consequently, protection.
HRW documents accounts by Afghans of repeated threats, frequent detentions, regular demands for bribes and occasional violence by the Pakistani police in the months since the Peshawar school attack. The abuse has compelled many Afghans to return to an uncertain fate in Afghanistan, while those living in Pakistan remain in constant fear. The report records the testimony of many Afghans having PoR cards, but even this provided little protection against police harassment and abuse.
In both its August and September 2015 monthly updates, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees noted: “In general, eviction notices by the authorities, harassment, intimidation, movement limitations, economic factors, settlement closure/consolidation and fear of arrest and/or deportation were mentioned by interviewed returnees as the main push factors of return from Pakistan so far this year.”
HRW makes concrete recommendations to ensure better protection of the rights of Afghan refugees, including that the Pakistan government should extend current PoR cards until at least December 31, 2017 and review the PoR system to establish better procedures to avoid the stress and cost of periodic short-term renewals. The government should also issue a specific written directive instructing all relevant government officials and state security forces to cease unlawful surveillance, harassment, intimidation and violence against Afghans living in Pakistan. Lastly, the government should ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention and adopt a national refugee law, as proposed in the 2013 National Policy on the Management and Repatriation of Afghan Refugees. The ongoing global refugee crisis is a reminder to all of humanity that refugees must be treated fairly. The HRW report serves as a stark and timely warning to the Pakistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa governments; it is a warning that should be heeded.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 9th, 2015.