“No matter who you are, your heart will turn black with so much abuse.” – Afghan refugee, 25, returning to Afghanistan, November 2016.
For the past 40 years, over 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees, and an estimated one million unregistered persons, have made Pakistan their home. In the last two years, however, tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan have led Pakistan to begin expelling these individuals from the country. In 2016, a mixture of deportation threats and abuse by police has led 365,000 registered refugees and an estimated 200,000 undocumented Afghan refugees to flee in search of safety elsewhere. Even more troubling, authorities within Pakistan have stated that they would like to see the same involuntary repatriation of refugees in 2017.
These expelled people are returning to a country being torn by armed conflict and become internally displaced persons without social services or employment. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) claimed the expulsion of refugees as a “humanitarian emergency,” which NGOs that provide aid are not easily able to address due to the nearby conflict and few resources. These returning refugees join the estimated 1.5 million internally displaced Afghans, including 625,000 displaced in 2016.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees warned in 2016 that the large number of refugees being forced to return to Afghanistan could develop into a major humanitarian crisis. The report by Human Rights Watch – which included interviews with refugees returned to Afghanistan, as well as Afghan refugees still in Pakistan – was in agreement with UN reports, which showed that refugees are returning to Afghanistan due to Pakistan’s pressure upon them to leave. The ‘coercive factors’ described by Afghan refugees as incentives to leave Pakistan came into force in June 2016, following a deterioration of relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan. These factors include the increasingly ambiguous legal status of refugees, statements from the government in favor of refugees returning to their home country, abuse by police, and denial of refugee children’s right to attend school.
A refugee’s legal status is key amongst these coercive factors, as it is linked with deportation. Afghan refugee status in Pakistan was meant to expire in December, but the date was then moved until late March 2017. However, in late November 2016, the federal cabinet of Pakistan only extended the legal status of Afghan refugees until later this year, but did not make the decision public until January 2017. This meant many Afghan refugees feared deportation in April for longer than necessary. This ambiguity destabilizes the lives of refugees and prevents them from creating lives for themselves and homes for their children in Pakistan. The fear of deportation encourages many to leave voluntarily, despite their fears of the violence and instability in Afghanistan.
By not renewing refugee status cards after December 2015, the Pakistani authorities pressured the refugees to return to Pakistan and created legal ambiguity for those still in the country. The encouragement of refugees to return to their homeland is against the international legal prohibition against refoulement. This stipulates that Pakistan cannot return Afghan refugees to a country where they would encounter “persecution, torture or other ill-treatment, or a threat to life.” No Afghan refugees have been registered in Pakistan since 2007, meaning that undocumented Afghan refugees are not legally protected by the UNHCR and lack legal status.
Additionally, the UNHCR increased the cash grant from $200 to $400 in June 2016. This became yet another driver for refugees to return to Afghanistan and effectively promotes repatriation. The UNHCR is allowed to do this under its mandate where it does not believe the refugees to be in a stable situation and it may also aid in the voluntary repatriation of refugees. Pakistan also abused its power of Afghan refugees. For example, refugees would be charged arbitrarily higher rents, and face hostility from local communities. Pakistan must end its human right abuses, and return to its former policy of providing Proof of Registration Cards to refugees for at least two years, and protect undocumented refugees within its borders.
The UNHCR has remained quiet on the coerced and unlawful expulsion of Afghan refugees from Pakistan. However, in communications with its international donors, the agency has stated that the country was merely helping refugees to voluntarily return to their home country. It claimed to have discussed individual cases with Pakistani authorities, but did not stop the widespread abuse of refugees for nearly three months 2016.
A refugee’s voluntary or involuntary return to Afghanistan is not a long-term answer that will provide the stability and safety they seek. Such an answer requires that the UNHCR should verify that the refugees are returning willingly. If the refugees have not been told of the state of their homeland, then they should be informed before their decision to leave has been processed and leads to their instability, and likely poverty and homelessness. The sheer number of returnees in the latter half of 2016, should have been a sign to the UNHCR that their return was not solely voluntary, suggesting that these violations were ignored.
The UNHCR responded to a letter from Human Rights Watch by refuting the assertion that the cash grant was intended to encourage refugee repatriation and insisted that it aided refugees who wished to repatriate of their own volition. However, as a result of the concerns expressed by Human Rights Watch, The UNHCR is reevaluating the effects of the cash grant, and whether it really did offer an incentive for repatriation to Afghanistan.
International donors and organizations should endeavor to aid these Afghan refugees in Pakistan until they are safe legally and have stable living conditions that are not under threat by Pakistani authorities, or are able to return to their homes in Afghanistan. The UNHCR should help in this effort by challenging the actions of the Pakistani authorities regarding the protection and legal status of these refugees, and do everything in its power to protect them from further harm.