By Zia Ur Rehman

May 04-10, 2012

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 .