Govt Urged To Halt 'Unconstitutional' Forced Repatriation Of Afghan Refugees

Civil society says citizens are being encouraged by the state to turn on each other; even those holding legitimate PoR cards are being targeted while access to detention centres denied

Govt Urged To Halt 'Unconstitutional' Forced Repatriation Of Afghan Refugees

The caretaker government has been urged to immediately halt the process of detaining and deporting thousands of poor Afghan refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers across Pakistan.

This unified demand was put forward by at least 56 prominent civil society members and activists, including lawyers, professors, journalists, doctors, researchers and activists, in a joint statement issued the other day. With over 150,000 Afghans forced to repatriate or detained pending deportation at internment centres across the country, the activists condemned the deportation of Afghan refugees and migrants from Pakistan. The civil society members include Hina Jilani of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), Senior Urban Planner Arif Hasan, Sheema Kermani, academician Dr Riaz Ahmad, Nida Kirmani, Mahnaz Rahman, Pastor Ghazala Shafique, Barrister Kazim Hassan and others.

In their statement, they termed as unconstitutional and violating several international laws a decision by the caretaker government to uproot the lives of hundreds of thousands of people who for years considered Pakistan their home and country, where they have sought refuge from multiple wars and totalitarian regimes.

They maintained that citizens are being encouraged by the state to turn on each other and give up the names and locations of Afghan families.

To make matters worse, they stated that law enforcement officials were even victimising registered Afghan refugees who are officially protected under the policy with their Proof of Registration (POR) cards, Afghan Citizen Cards (ACC), and in some cases, Pakistan Computerised National Identity Cards (CNICs) snatched and destroyed in a bid to intimidate and illegally detain these individuals and families for deportation and forced repatriation. 

They said that the state had opened several detention centres where refugees, migrants, and even citizens were being detained and refused their right to legal counsel and their right to other support. 

Journalists, they said, have been barred from entering these detention centres to observe and report on the condition of people there.

The Constitution of Pakistan, they said, guarantees the right to a free and fair trial, prevention from torture, and the rights of the child. The Constitution also maintains that no compulsory service shall be cruel or incompatible with human dignity asserted.

The way the caretaker government has effectively launched a state-sanctioned witch hunt and created a black hole for migrants and refugees, they have robbed the Afghan people and Pakistani citizens of a voice and their freedom. 
We have turned our backs on refugees and migrants, the activists said, adding Pakistan is bound by certain principles of customary international law which govern the treatment of refugees.

As per the 1993 Cooperation Agreement with UNHCR, we are bound by the principle of non-refoulement: the forced return of refugees to a country where they are at risk of persecution. 

Afghanistan, they said, is currently under a dictatorial and unelected Taliban rule. Many of the refugees, migrants, and citizens belong to the Khwajasira community, persecuted Hazara and Christian communities, apart from human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, artists, folk musicians, and employees of the former Afghan government - all of whom are at risk of near certain death if forced to return.
Women no longer have the right to work or study in Afghanistan; by forcibly sending them back, we would expose them to gross human rights violations. 

The civil society activists said that they recognise the rights of host communities and do not wish for any refugee to be a burden on them. However, they said it is possible to speak of the rights of refugees while also standing up for the rights of host communities. 

We must not undermine the injustices of the state, particularly in Pakistan’s Sindh province. 

Civil society activists called upon the government to facilitate refugees in a way that does not create divisions between host and refugee communities. The most suitable way for Pakistan to do this would be to introduce a Refugee Bill, which was last presented to Parliament in April 2023. As soon as elections are held in the country, and a new parliament is sworn in, a refugee law with a national legal framework for protecting refugees must be developed and passed by an elected parliament. The Foreigners Act of 1946 must be re-visited. 

Pakistan also must become a signatory of the Geneva Convention of 1951 - to the extent of the status of refugees. 

The civil society activists further urged citizens of all countries to create a global movement for the rights of Afghan refugees. They demanded the caretaker government immediately stop the illegal deportations and detentions of Afghan refugees and asylum-seekers across Pakistan.

POR cards must be renewed, and Afghans who fled the Taliban in August 2021 must be provided documents expediently, they demanded.
National human rights institutions, including the National Commission of Human Rights (NCHR), Sindh Commission on the Status of Women (SCSW), and National Commission on the Rights of Child (NCRC), must intervene and stop the enforced repatriation to practice their mandate to protect human rights. 

They also demanded that a group of civil society, lawyers, and journalists must be allowed inside the detention centres being set up by the caretaker government to document the rights of all those detained. 

Arshad Yousafzai is based in Karachi and mainly covers political parties, labour, education policy, science and research, minorities, and human rights for The News International