(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 June 29, 2016, the government extended registered Afghan refugees’ Proof of Residency (PoR) cards for six months, until the end of 2016.
The uncertain residency status of Afghan refugees in Pakistan has encouraged police harassment, threats, and extortion, particularly since the deadly December 2014 attack on a Peshawar school by the Pakistani Taliban. Recent statements by senior Pakistani officials have raised concerns of new government actions to restrict the rights of Afghan refugees in the country.
“The Pakistani government’s move to extend Afghan refugees’ residency until the end of 2016 sends an important signal to police and local officials not to harass or coerce Afghan refugees to leave,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director. “But an extension to the end of 2017 would allow more time for the situation in Afghanistan to stabilize so that it would be more feasible for them to return in safety and dignity.”
The temporary extension of the PoR cards, which officially recognize their holders’ status as “Afghan citizen[s] temporarily residing in Pakistan,” provides relief to the country’s 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees whose cards were to expire on June 30. However, the six-month extension falls far short of the December 31, 2017 date recommended by the federal 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 if the government ends their status.
Implicit and explicit threats by Pakistani officials over the past year have exacerbated the Afghans’ insecurity. On May 24, 2016, Balochistan’s provincial home minister, Sarfraz Khan Bugti, said, “Either the Afghan refugees can return voluntarily, with respect and dignity, or the people of Balochistan can humiliate them and throw them out of the country.” On June 27, Pakistan’s minister for SAFRON, Lt. Gen. (Rtd.) Abdul Qadir Baloch, announced that Pakistan would undertake a “new tougher policy” toward Afghan refugees. Baloch justified the policy as a response to recent tensions with Afghanistan including deadly clashes in June between Afghan and Pakistani troops at the Torkham border-crossing. Baloch said that the purpose of the new policy was to repatriate Afghan refugees “with respect,” without elaborating.
Police in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province announced on June 28 the arrests of more than 2,000 Afghan “illegal settlers.” Afghan refugees in that province, which shares a long border with Afghanistan and hosts the majority of Afghan refugees in Pakistan, also face major restrictions on their right to freedom of movement. The Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provincial government spokesman, Mushtaq Ghani, warned that beginning July 1, “All Afghan refugees will be restricted to their camps and will not be allowed to move freely in the province.” Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa police reported on June 29 that they had arrested at least 500 registered Afghan refugees and forcibly deported them on the grounds that they were a perceived “security risk.”
On June 30, SAFRON Minister Baloch expressed support for the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government’s aversion toward Afghan refugees, accusing them of “hurting the economy and culture of the province beside their involvement in crimes.”
“Statements by Pakistani officials against Afghan refugees not only heighten the fears of refugee families, but also could encourage abusive actions by law enforcement officers,” Kine said.
Pakistan is host to 1.5 million PoR card holders, the world’s second-largest protracted refugee population in a single country under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) mandate. In addition, according to Pakistani government estimates, one million undocumented Afghans are living in Pakistan.
Those populations include many who fled conflict and repression in Afghanistan during the late 1970s and early 1980s, as well as 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, 2015, SAFRON Minister 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 against Afghans 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 also prompted large numbers of Afghans to return to Afghanistan, where they have faced a widening conflict and continuing insecurity. Deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan prompted more than 178,000 Afghans to register first-time asylum claims in the European Union in 2015. The return of Afghans uprooted by police abuses in Pakistan, where many have lived for decades, may add to the numbers of those seeking refuge in Europe as conditions in Afghanistan deteriorate.
“Pakistan’s government should protect Afghan refugees from vindictive reprisals linked to cross-border tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan,” Kine said. “The government can take a concrete step toward ensuring their protection by extending residency cards until the end of 2017 and developing a long-term, rights-respecting solution for the Afghan refugees.”