(New York) – The Pakistani government should reduce rights violations against Afghan refugees by extending their legal residency status until at least December 31, 2017, Human Rights Watch said today. On January 12, 2016, the government extended registered Afghan refugees’ Proof of Residency (PoR) cards until June 30, 2016.
As Human Rights Watch has documented, the uncertain residency status of Afghan refugees in Pakistan has encouraged police harassment, threats, and extortion of Afghan refugees, particularly since the December 2014 attack on a Peshawar school by the Pakistani Taliban.
“Pakistan’s six-month residency extension reduces Afghan refugees’ insecurity, but the government also needs to stop police abuse of refugees,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director. “A two-year extension both sends the message that refugees shouldn’t be pressured to go home and would give officials time to work out resettlement to third countries and other longer-term solutions.”
The temporary extension of the PoR cards, which officially recognize their holders’ status as “Afghan citizen[s] temporarily residing in Pakistan,” is a relief to the country’s 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees whose existing PoR cards had expired on December 31, 2015. However, the six-month extension falls far short of the end-2017 date recommended by the Ministry for States and Frontier Regions (SAFRON). The extension also fails to address the insecurity among refugees over the duration of that status and uncertainty regarding protection should the government end PoR status.
That insecurity is exacerbated by implicit and explicit threats by Pakistani officials over the past year, saying that after the expiration of their PoR cards, their holders become “illegal aliens and have no right to stay [in Pakistan].”
Pakistan is host to 1.5 million PoR card holders, constituting the world’s largest protracted refugee population under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) mandate in a single country. In addition, according to Pakistan government estimates, there are about 1 million undocumented Afghans residing in Pakistan. Those populations include many who fled conflict and repression in Afghanistan during the late 1970s and early 1980s, and their descendants. Some arrived as children, grew up in Pakistan, married, and had children of their own who have never lived in Afghanistan. Others have arrived in the decades of turmoil in Afghanistan since, seeking security, employment, and a higher standard of living.
Afghans in Pakistan have experienced a sharp increase in hostility since the so-called Pakistani Taliban, Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, attacked the Army Public School in Peshawar on December 16, 2014, killing 145 people, including 132 children. The Pakistani government responded to the attack with repressive measures including the introduction of military courts to prosecute terrorism suspects, executions after the lifting of an unofficial moratorium on the use of the death penalty, and proposals to register and repatriate Afghans living in Pakistan. On June 23, the federal minister for the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions, Gen. (Rtd.) Abdul Qadir Baloch, announced that there would be no official reprisals against the country’s Afghan population in response to the Peshawar attack. Despite that promise, Pakistani police have pursued an unofficial policy of punitive retribution that has included raids on Afghan settlements; detention, harassment, and physical violence against Afghans; extortion; and the demolition of Afghan homes.
Such police abuses have prompted fearful Afghans to restrict their movements, leading to economic hardship and curtailing access to education and employment. This oppressive situation has prompted large numbers of Afghans to return to Afghanistan, where they face a widening conflict and continuing insecurity. Deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan prompted more than 80,000 Afghans to leave their country in 2015 and seek asylum in Europe. The return of Afghans uprooted by police abuses in Pakistan, where many have lived for decades, to Afghanistan may add to the numbers of those seeking refuge in Europe as conditions deteriorate in Afghanistan.
“Pakistan could reduce police abuses by extending residency cards for Afghan refugees,” Kine said. “This would also provide the government space to develop a long-term, rights-respecting solution for the Afghan refugees.”
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An earlier version of this press release stated that Pakistan is host to 2.5 million Afghan refugees, which according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) include an estimated 1 million undocumented Afghans living in Pakistan as of November 2015. In fact, Pakistan is host to 1.5 million documented refugees, constituting the world’s largest protracted refugee population under the UNHCR mandate in a single country. The Pakistan government estimates that there are about one million undocumented Afghans residing in Pakistan. The press release has been changed to reflect this.