‘What are you doing here?’

Human Rights Watch have documented instances of widespread police abuse targeting Afghans in Pakistan. Some of these are described in this exclusive report for The Friday Times

‘What are you doing here?’
"The police did not beat us much before December 16, 2014 [when the Taliban attacked a Pakistani school]. Now, they [beat] us for no reason. I am afraid that one day when I won’t have money for bribes, they will kill me. None of my other family members, except my brother and I, leave the house now. Our children do not go to school. They do not even go to play outside anymore. [But] I cannot go back to Afghanistan.” These are the words of by Karim, an Afghan shopkeeper living in Peshawar, in July this year.

Karim (a pseudonym), 42, currently living in Peshawar, hails from Afghanistan’s Laghman province. He came to Pakistan with his family in 1985. He claims that harassment by the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa police and district administration officials was threatening his business and frightening his family members.

Afghan men and women have described how the increasingly hostile climate has prompted them to restrict their movements, leading to economic hardship and curtailed 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. The same factors have already prompted thousands of Afghans to leave the country in 2015 to seek security and livelihood in Europe. Afghans, uprooted by police abuses from Pakistan - where many have lived for decades - might possibly add to the numbers of those seeking refuge in Europe as conditions deteriorate in Afghanistan.

Pakistan has long been host to one of the largest displaced populations in the world. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees and 1 million undocumented Afghans were living in Pakistan as of November 2015, including many who fled conflict and repression in Afghanistan during the late 1970s and early 1980s, or their descendants. Some arrived as children, grew up in Pakistan, married and had children of their own - who have never lived in Afghanistan. Thirty-five years later, the situation for Afghans residing in Pakistan is increasingly precarious. Unwanted in Pakistan, where they face increasing abuse by the authorities, many are unwilling to return to Afghanistan due to insecurity and a lack of any means of livelihood.

Hostility towards Afghans living in Pakistan has increased dramatically after the horrific attack carried out by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) at the Army Public School Peshawar on December 16, 2014, killing 145 people, including 132 children. Since then, Pakistani police have carried out raids on Afghan settlements; detained, harassed and beaten Afghan men; extorted bribes and demolished Afghan homes. Every Afghan interviewed by HRW who had returned to Afghanistan said that fear of the police was the reason they had done so. Afghans remaining in Pakistan described a repeated pattern of arbitrary detention, extortion, and intimidation. Both registered and undocumented Afghans have been the victims of Pakistani police abuse.

Afghan refugees in Pakistan
Afghan refugees in Pakistan

Immediately after the Army Public School attack, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provincial government called for all Afghans to leave within a month. Despite the statement from the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions (SAFRON) at a joint press conference with the UNHCR representative that there was no evidence that registered Afghans had been involved in “terrorism-related” activities in Pakistan, the abuse and harassment of the Afghans, particularly in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa continues to be on the rise.

The uncertainty of the registration process for Afghans in Pakistan has contributed to the problem. The first comprehensive registration of Afghans living in Pakistan, which took place in 2006-2007, provided many Afghan refugees with a Proof of Registration (PoR) card, initially valid for three years. The Pakistani government subsequently extended the validity of the cards several times. The PoR cards will expire on December 31, 2015. Hence Pakistan faces a potential situation where the legal status of millions of Afghans living in Pakistan might become uncertain, providing more of an enabling environment for local police and administration to commit abuses. To avoid this, the government should extend current PoR cards until at least December 31, 2017, and review the PoR system to establish better procedures to avoid the stress and cost of periodic short-term renewals.

In the early years of the Soviet conflict, the refugees received a welcome in Pakistan that reflected the geopolitical dimensions of the war. Eager to use the refugees to bolster his stance against the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul, President Zia allowed the fleeing Afghans to settle in camps, but required them to register with one of seven Afghan mujahidin parties based in Pakistan who were fighting Afghan government and Soviet forces. Refugees who did so were provided with a passbook (shanakhti), which entitled them to assistance, but afforded no legal protection.
Afghans in Pakistan face arbitrary detention, extortion and intimidation

The Pakistani government has been shouldering a heavy burden in dealing with the influx of Afghans for over 35 years, and in many respects has responded well, hence making it even more important for the government to restrain the KP police and administration from sullying Pakistan’s well-deserved reputation for hospitality.

A lasting solution to the current situation for both refugees and undocumented Afghans in Pakistan will depend upon improved respect for their rights. It also will require cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan to ensure that Afghans who wish to return to Afghanistan have access to education, housing, and health services when they move; and that Afghans who remain have access to appropriate assistance in Pakistan. In the interim, the government should take all necessary measures to end harassment, intimidation and violence against Afghans living in Pakistan.

Islamabad is justified in devising policies allowing it to fight terror in a manner which respects human rights. However, demonising the Afghan population and unjustified, vindictive reprisals against them is not lawful, nor is it an effective strategy to combat terror. The government needs to display respect for law and humanity in dealing with the situation of Afghans in Pakistan. The international community must lend its support to enable this. It will be a shame if Pakistan ends up on the wrong side of history on the question of humane treatment of refugees and migrants.