The government has been urged to reconsider and immediately withdraw a decision to expel undocumented foreigners, particularly Afghan refugees, by November, noting that the decision does not fall within the mandate of the caretaker government apart from the fact that forced repatriation of refugees falls afoul of international laws and conventions.
The Human Rights Commission urged this during a high-profile consultation. Participants of the consultation included social activists, lawyers, political leaders, including former senator Afrasiab Khattak, representatives of the Afghan refugee community, and representatives from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
The commission noted that the forced repatriation will invariably affect poor and vulnerable Afghan refugees and asylum seekers, including women, children, the elderly, differently-abled people, and Afghans at risk because of their professions.
Former senator, HRCP Council and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) member Farhatullah Babar said that the absence of domestic laws on refugees was no excuse for failing to protect their rights. This was especially important given Pakistan's obligations under its tripartite agreement with Afghanistan and the UNHCR.
He recommended that a national refugee council should act as a bridge between the government and refugees to enable the latter to articulate their concerns.
HRCP Council member Sadia Bokhari, while presenting observations of a recent fact-finding mission, which has found that several Afghan settlements in Islamabad have been demolished by the Capital Development Authority (CDA), ostensibly as part of an anti-encroachment drive. However, most residents hold Proof of Registration (POR) cards and say they have been subjected to harassment, intimidation and extortion by the police following the government's notification on foreigners.
Refugee rights researcher Dr Saba Gul Khattak underscored the need for accurate and publicly available data on the number of refugees and asylum seekers to make fair needs assessments.
The consultation participants pointed out that the absence of documentation meant there was greater scope for rights violations and that expelling an entire community for solely security-driven considerations amounted to collective punishment.
They added that a timeline-based citizenship programme would allow long-term residents to become naturalised as citizens.
Former National Assembly member from North Waziristan Mohsin Dawar said that the foreign relations committee of the NA he had chaired had unanimously recommended that Pakistan sign the 1951 Refugees Convention.
Representatives of the Afghan refugee community stated that it was not humanly possible for several hundred thousand refugees to return to Afghanistan in under a month when, for so many, Pakistan was the only home they had ever known.
Representatives of UNHCR said that any repatriation of refugees must be voluntary, comply with international standards of dignity and safety, and be based on informed consent for their return and reintegration.
An IOM representative said the agency was willing to mobilise resources to assist the Pakistani government in complying with these criteria.
Regarding the consultation, HRCP chairperson Hina Jilani said, 'a one-size-fits-all solution cannot be applied to all refugees and asylum seekers without considering their specific needs.' Even in the deliberate absence of a policy on refugees, she said Pakistan was still bound by international customary law and that any such policy must put humanitarian concerns ahead of security concerns.