Afghan refugees living in Pakistan attend Eid-al-Fitr prayers on the outskirts of Peshawar on August 8, 2013.

© 2013 Reuters

(New York) – Pakistan’s government should ensure that its proposed National Refugee Law meets international standards for the protection of refugees and asylum seekers, Human Rights Watch said today. Pakistan has hosted 1.6 million registered Afghan refugees for more than 30 years, while another 1 million remain unregistered.

In July 2013, the Pakistani government created a cabinet committee on Afghan refugees to implement the Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees, a regional policy arrangement with Afghanistan, Iran, and the United Nations refugee agency. The strategy supports repatriation, sustainable reintegration, and assistance to host countries of Afghan refugees. However, the Pakistani government has not released any details of its proposed refugee law nor has it made a commitment to ratify the UN Refugee Convention, which sets standards for the treatment of refugees.

“The Pakistani government has an opportunity with its proposed refugee law to create a legal framework to protect millions of people,” said Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan director. “This law is an important test of the government’s commitment to ensure that domestic legislation meets international standards.”

The government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, which took office in June, has announced several measures to protect Afghan refugees in the country. These include extending Proof of Registration Cards cards for Afghan refugees, which had been due to expire in June, until December 2015. The cards, which act as proof of legal residence and refugee status, permit access to banking services, driver’s licenses, and overseas money transfers. The government also instructed Pakistan’s provincial governments and law enforcement agencies to avoid harassing Afghan refugees by accepting existing refugee cards as valid until updated cards were issued.

The 1951 convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol provides various protections for refugees, including a prohibition on the return of refugees to any territory where their life or freedom would be threatened. The convention has been ratified by 145 countries.

“The safety and security of refugees in Pakistan boils down to one registration card,” Hasan said. “In extending these cards for 30 months, the new government has shown a willingness to treat refugees humanely and with dignity. It should now take the next step and establish legal protections.”