Posts Tagged ‘Afghan refugees in Pakistan’

By Zia Ur Rehman

May 04-10, 2012

http://www.thefridaytimes.com/beta3/tft/article.php?issue=20120504&page=6

The government has launched a massive crackdown against Afghan nationals living illegally in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

Dozens of Afghans, especially students in religious seminaries and daily wage workers, have been arrested under the Registration of Foreigners Act in the last week.

A refugee girl climbs on to an Afghanistan-bound truck at the UNHCR repatriation terminal in Peshawar

Pakistan has been host to the world’s largest refugee population. Millions of Afghans fled to Pakistan in the 1980s after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and during the rule of Taliban in the late 1990s. “In fact, the influx of Afghan refugees to Pakistan started right after the overthrowing of Sardar Daud’s government by Noor Muhammad Tarakai in April 1973,” said Akbar Azami, a Kabul-based rights activist who has worked extensively on Afghan refugees. “The issue of Afghan refugees in Pakistan is a long-drawn-out one, spread over 30 years. The ongoing insurgency in Afghanistan is responsible for the continued influx of refugees.”

In March 2002, the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, and the government of Pakistan conducted a census of Afghans living in Pakistan. There are about 3 million Afghan refugees living in country, according to the census. About 42% of them live in refugee camps and 58% in urban areas. Over 81% of them are Pashtuns, with much smaller percentages of Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and other ethnic groups, said a Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) report titled “Afghan Refugees in Pakistan: Push Comes to Shove”.

According to Duniay Aslam Khan, an official at UNHCR Islamabad, there are 1.7 million registered Afghan refugees still in Pakistan. Various studies put the number of unregistered refugees at around 1.2 million. Most of them live in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, FATA, Pashtun districts of Balochistan, and Karachi.

Refugee rights organisations claim that a large number of Afghans had recently returned. Since 2002, when the UNHCR-assisted voluntary repatriation programme started, 3.7 million Afghan refugees have returned home, Duniay Aslam Khan said.

Increasing incidents of harassment and arrests by Pakistan’s law enforcement agencies following terrorist attacksin the country, poor socio-economic conditions, floods in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and increase in forcible deportation are key factors compelling the refugees to go back, they believe.

“Pakistan had been a haven for war victims of Afghanistan for decades,” says Gul Shireen, who was returning to his home town Mazar-e-Sharif. “Now, Pakistan is facing the same problems of terrorism and militancy that Afghanistan had been facing for three decades. We are going back because Pakistan no longer offers jobs, security and peace.”

Social researchers see things differently. They say popular perceptions of refugees have changed in response to altered geo-political realities. “In the past, Afghan refugees were encouraged to join anti-Soviet Mujahideen forces by the Pakistani authorities, but now they associate these refugees with homegrown militant outfits responsible for terrorist attacks in Pakistan,” said a social scientist at Peshawar University. “Pakistan’s law enforcement agencies are purposely reinforcing the idea that Afghans living in Pakistan are involved in terrorist or criminal activities in the country,” he said, adding that Pakistan’s judiciary and law enforcement agencies should understand the refugee phenomenon.

In a press conference on April 25, Siraj Ahmed, Peshawar’s District Coordination Officer (DCO), said the Afghans living illegally in Peshawar and its surroundings should leave the country by May 25. He said they had become a potential threat to peace and involved in terrorists activities in the province. Committees were operating on a micro level in Peshawar to collect data about illegal Afghan immigrants and would be able to evacuate them in a month, he said.

Although Ahmed said the crackdown would be launched on May 25, officials and refugee leaders claim that an operation is already underway across the province, especially in Peshawar. “After the recent terrorist attacks in the province, the crackdown against Afghan refugees, both registered and unregistered, has been accelerated,” said Haji Ghulab, a refugee leader. He said Afghan refugees who do not have Proof of Registration (PoR), a document issued to them jointly by the government of Pakistan and the UNCHR, face stern action by law enforcement agencies.

A police official in Peshawar said a number of Afghan refugees were linked to local and Afghan Taliban groups. The provincial government had decided to deport all illegal Afghan refugees in the province, he said, and was yet to decide if their assets should be sealed or confiscated.

UNHCR also receives complaints from Afghans about police harassment. In most such cases, the police refuses to accept their PoRs. “We provide legal assistance to registered Afghans who are arrested under the country’s Foreigner Act to ensure that no registered refugees are deported. However, those living illegally in the country are subject to the law of the land,” a UNHCR official said.

The Afghan ambassador in Islamabad, Omar Daudzai, expressed concern over the forced deportation of illegal Afghan immigrants from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. He told Radio Mashaal on April 26 that it was almost impossible to send back such a large number of Afghan immigrants in such small duration. Daudzai rejected the notion that Afghans were involved in subversive activities in the province.

Security analysts say the government had been issuing such deadlines to illegal Afghan immigrants since 2001, but did not take action. They said law enforcement agencies had launched a largely successful crackdown against Afghan prayer leaders some time ago, and deported many of them.

“There are 150 unfrequented routes along the 24,000 kilometer long Pakistan-Afghanistan border, where keeping a strict check on cross border movement is impossible,” said the police official.

UNHCR has decided to complete the repatriation of Afghan refugees by December 2012 and townships have been set up in nine Afghan provinces where the refugees would be settled. This has created fear among Afghan refugees.

“We are under a lot of pressure after the December repatriation deadline,” said Hamadullah Jan, a refugee from the Kunar province. He said he would like to live in Pakistan because he believed there would be no peace in Afghanistan even by December.

The ministry of State and Frontier Regions (SAFTRON) has prepared a comprehensive proposal to arrange visa permits for Afghan refugees for a long-term stay in Pakistan, said a SAFRON official.

But the federal interior ministry and the Punjab government have expressed reservations saying the move might lead to security problems.

The writer is a journalist and researcher. He can be reached at zia_red@hotmail.com .

Afghan refugees choose to go home as the situation worsens in Pakistan

By Zia Ur Rehman

published in The News

 

 

“Pakistan had been a haven for war-affected Afghans for decades, but now Pakistan itself is facing the same problems of terrorism and militancy that Afghanistan has been suffering for the last three decades. We are going back to Afghanistan because Pakistan no longer offers jobs, security and peace of mind,” says Jahan Sher while returning to his home town Mazar-e-Sharif. The economy of Afghanistan has improved during the last four years, he boasts.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) claims that more Afghan refugees have returned to their homeland from Pakistan this year than in the previous year. Increasing incidents of harassment and arrests by Pakistan’s law enforcement agencies following terrorist activities in the country, poor socio-economic conditions, floods in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and increase in forcible deportation are key factors compelling the refugees to go back, refugees’ leaders and rights activists believe.

Pakistan has been host to the world’s largest refugee population. Millions of Afghans fled to Pakistan in the 1980s after the Soviet invasion and during the rule of Taliban in the late 1990s.

Currently there are some 1.6 million registered Afghans in Pakistan, with 45 per cent residing in refugees camps and the rest scattered amongst the host communities. Last year, Pakistan and the UNHCR signed an agreement to extend the stay of Afghan refugees until the end of 2010. About 3.7 million refugees have returned to Afghanistan in the past 9 years, according to UNCHR.

“A total of 1,09,383 Afghans have gone back in March-October through the UNCHR’s return programme, while the number of refugees returning to Afghanistan in 2009 was 51,290,” said Duniya Aslam Khan, UNHCR Pakistan’s Assistant Public Officer. “The number of returnees this year has increased by 51 per cent when compared to the number of people that returned in 2009. Refugees registered in the country are receiving a better assistance, transport and reintegration package, including a grant of $100,” added Khan.

“Most of the returnees cited the difficult situation in Pakistan, worst economic factors and improvement in some provinces of Afghanistan as the important reasons for their decision to return,” said Nader Farhad, a UNHCR spokesperson in Kabul.

“After the continuing terrorist attacks on offices of Pakistan’s security agencies, the crackdown against Afghan refugees, both registered and unregistered, has been accelerated across the country. Thousands of refugees have been arrested and forcibly deported,” said Haji Sohrab, the representative of Afghan refugees appointed by Afghan Consulate in Karachi. “Many Afghan refugees who do not have Proof of Registration (PoR), a document given to these refugees jointly by the government of Pakistan and UNCHR, face strict action by the police,” informed Sohrab.

“Thousands of Afghans, especially students in religious seminaries, daily wage workers and scavengers, have been arrested under the Foreign Registration Act (FRA) during the last two years and deported to their homeland,” said Iqbal Shah Khattak, a law teacher at Urdu University, Karachi.

However, refugees complain that police and law enforcement authorities have time and again raided houses in the refugee camps and other areas and arrested even those community members who had PoR.

“Refugees lived without any legal document for 28 years, till the 2007 registration when they were provided the PoR cards. This gave rise to a lot of legal problems. They could be stopped, searched and arrested under the FRA,” said Khattak, who has worked extensively on refugee rights in Karachi. Afghans in Pakistan have been regularly complaining about harassment and detention at the hands of police, he added.

“The registration process is flawed, leaving many refugees unregistered. Hence, these refugees are vulnerable to harassment and possible deportation,” maintained Sohrab. “The registration process was also marred by problems like lack of guidance, transport, translators and female registration.”

Amid crackdown against illegal Afghan immigrants across the country, industries are now forced by the government not to hire foreign workers without documentary proof, thus adding to the employment problems of refugees.

Denying the reports of arresting refugees with PoR cards, police claim they are arresting only those Afghan immigrants who are living illegally and without documentary proof. “We arrest illegal Afghan immigrants under FRA as well as the refugees involved in crimes,” said police officials, requesting anonymity. Media reports suggest hundreds of Afghan refugees have been detained by police across the country as a pre-emptive security sweep ahead of Muharram.

Majority of refugees are returning to Afghanistan because of worst flooding in Pakistan. Twenty out of 29 refugee camps across the province were swept away by flooding, destroying thousands of homes and leaving about 85,500 refugees homeless. One of the worst hit refugee villages is Azakhel in Nowshera where 23,000 people lost homes.

“Our houses were completely destroyed by the floods and the government is not able to help us,” said Khan Muhammad, an Afghan refugee living in Azakhel camp. “We are planning to go back to Afghanistan where, at least, some of our residential problems would be solved.”

Instead of going back to their villages, most of the returning refugees are settling in cities where they could find jobs easily. “Due to the prevailing insurgency in Pakistan’s tribal areas and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, thousands of Pakistani Pashtuns are coming to Afghanistan for jobs,” said Basir Ahmed Hotak, an Afghan journalist.

Majority of refugees hailing from worst-hit provinces of Afghanistan, where security situation is still critical, were reluctant to go back to their homeland. “Majority of those returning belong to northern provinces like Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat where the security situation is better,” informed Arshad Khan, a refugee from Helmand. “How can we return to places like Helmand and Kandahar where security situation is worst?”

UNHCR’s officials and refugee leaders confide to TNS that a large number of repatriated refugees are coming back to Pakistan after taking money from UNHCR. “Going back to Afghanistan was a mistake as the security and economic situation is not good in Afghanistan,” said Hafeez Shah, who recently returned to Karachi from Afghanistan.

Some of the returning refugees complain that there is no shelter, electricity, schools, hospitals and employment opportunities in Afghanistan which compelled them to come back to Pakistan.

Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), in its report tilted ‘Afghan Refugees in Pakistan: Push Comes to Shove’ expressed concerns over closure of refugees camps and intimidation of refugees at the hand of police.

But Najamuddin Khan, Federal Minister for SAFRON (Ministry of State and Frontier Region) said their repatriation was completely on voluntary basis and the government wants their respectful return. The ministry had suggested to UNHCR to give $5000 to each Afghan family returning to Afghanistan for shelter and livelihood there.

(The writer is an independent journalist and researcher and works on human rights, conflict and development. Email: zia_red@hotmail.com)