‘We cannot stay here, we cannot go back’

Amidst a drive against illegal migrants, Afghan refugees face suspicion and harassment

‘We cannot stay here, we cannot go back’
After 150 children and teachers were killed in a terrorist attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014, Pakistan renewed its resolve to fight terrorism and terrorists. A law-enforcement drive that followed has placed many of the country’s 1.5 million Afghan refugees under a microscope.

Taliban leaders operating from Afghanistan have also claimed responsibility for the September 15 raid on the Badaber airforce camp in Peshawar. “This attack was planned in Afghanistan,” military spokesman Gen Bajwa said in a press conference the same day. “All the terrorists involved in this attack were trained there and they came from there. The attack was controlled and handled from Afghanistan.”

Because of such concerns, law-enforcement agencies look at the refugees living in 64 camps all over Pakistan with suspicion, and crackdowns against illegal Afghan migrants have also created problems for legal refugees.
"How can we know if someone is a criminal?"

“We cannot stay here, we cannot go back. Life is getting harder here and the police harasses us constantly,” said Khalil, who lives in a temporary village camp in the 1/12 area of Islamabad. The camp was set up by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) when refugees were moved from the informal settlement in the 1/11 area. UNCHR estimates show over 3,400 refugees live in the area – around 500 registered families.

“Men were rounded up and they took their Proof of Residence cards,” said Saleem, an elder from the locality. “They kept them overnight and we had to pay money to get them back. Sometimes they take our cards and ask for more money if we want them back.”

The Proof of Residence, or PoR, cards are the only legal identification documents they have. A refugee without documentation can quickly get in trouble. Some residents say the police uses that against them and are involved in undue harassment.

“The police have showed up in the area several times, on the pretext of security checks, and taken our things with them,” Saleem said. “They even stole the aid we received during Ramzan.”

At the area’s police station, the stationhouse officer denies the allegations. Refugees with PoR cards are seldom harassed and the crackdowns only target undocumented refugees, says Mehboob Ahmed, the SHO at Sabzi Mandi police station. But if even a documented refugee tries to leave their workplace or home, and “wanders off”, they can be arrested.

“If someone works in 1/12 and lives nearby, what are they doing in the parks?” Mehboob says. “They need to stay in their own areas. Why are they going everywhere, all over the city?”

Such arrests are largely preemptive.  “No one’s face says whether they are innocent or guilty,” the officer says. “How can we know if someone is a criminal? We arrest anyone that seems suspicious to us, but we let them go later if they are innocent.”

“As things stand, the authorities cannot help but view the refugees with suspicion. We have no monitoring system on the border, which is why the police is tougher on them. We have no way of telling if the people getting in are who they claim they are,” says Sheraz Khan, director of the Society for Human Rights and Prisoners Aid (SHARP).

After the Peshawar attack in December, the government turned its attention towards Afghan refugees, and began mass arrests, he says. Afghan refugees with PoR cards were released later, but those without documentation were immediately deported.

A source in NACTA said daily ‘combing operations’ were conducted under the National Action Plan against terrorism and extremism. “We apprehended over 85,000 people,” said the source, who was on a key position in the counterterrorism agency. “I asked which one of them were terrorists and which of them were Afghans. Only a small number of them were Afghans,” he said. “Then I asked the SHOs what the allegations against them were. Some had no identification, some had weapons without licenses, some ran away from authorities for no reason, and most of these people were released.”

Arrests of this nature are happening all over Pakistan, according to Sheraz Khan.  “Simply arresting refugees who have been granted stay in Pakistan on the basis of their origin is harassment,” he says. “It is a different matter if they are involved in crime, but saying all Afghanis are involved in such activities is wrong.”

The source in NACTA said while many Afghans crossed borders because of social and economic problems, others are entering Pakistan for terrorism and therefore need to be monitored. “They were supposed to stay in the camps, but they left. Many camps have fallen apart because they are not given funds… the KP government doesn’t have the funds to give them.”

Sheraz Khan says the government is now moving towards forced relocation, to push them out of Punjab and and bringing them to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, so that they can be sent to Afghanistan.

He believes there needs to be a legislative system in place for any monitoring that is required. “We need to introduce something that can help confine them, in the sense that we should know what happens when an Afghan crosses the border. If he finds a home or starts a business, then it should be possible to monitor those activities.”

On August 26, the Pakistani government gave the refugees an extension to stay in the country till 2017. Sheraz says that is a good opportunity to help secure their future. “If you want these people to be able to sustain themselves and their lives, then you need to make sure that they have the required skills to do so,” he said.

The Refugee Affected and Hosting Areas (RAHA) program, which functions under the UN framework, places emphasis on agriculture, rural development and poverty reduction. Khan feels that the program could help the community, because one of the main reasons refugees are afraid to return is that they have no idea what they will do when they return. “It’s been 37 years and they don’t want to return. Unless they can feel secure about going back, they never will,” he said. “I believe that if we focus on the youth and spend the two year extension working hard, then they could learn the skills that can help them earn a livelihood back home.”

The response from the other side of the border has been cold at best, says the NACTA official. “We suggested a border commission to be put in place and it was approved, but the Afghan government is not activating it from their end.”

He says he has been made aware of the harassment of refugees. “My information is that they are asked for money. I have informed the IGs about this. This is a threat.” Meanwhile, “we have sensitized all the SHOs about Afghan refugees”.

But “the real issue is the border” he insists. “Around 20,000 people cross the border every day and we do not know who they are and what they are doing.”