About 250,000 Afghan asylum seekers have arrived in Pakistan since August 2021, but a migrant crackdown has left many of them in fear of being jailed or deported
More than 600 Afghans have been deported from Pakistan in the past three days, and hundreds more face expulsion in a renewed crackdown on migrants.
On Saturday, 302 people were sent back to Afghanistan from Sindh province and 303 on Monday, including 63 women and 71 children. A further 800 people are expected to be deported in the coming days.
Last summer, authorities began deporting Afghans for illegally entering the country, but arrests and detentions have increased since October. Nearly 1,400 Afghans, including 129 women and 178 children, have been detained in Karachi and Hyderabad alone, the largest number of arrests made to date in Pakistan, say lawyers.
Pakistan has not adopted the UN Refugee Convention 1951, which confers a legal duty on countries to protect people fleeing serious harm.
Moniza Kakar, a Karachi-based human rights lawyer, said nearly 400 of the arrested Afghans had valid visas on their passports or proof-of-residence cards, which they said were confiscated by police before they were jailed.
Umer Ijaz Gilani, an Islamabad-based lawyer, said deporting Afghan asylum seekers was a “clear violation of the non-refoulement principle” (forcibly returning refugees or asylum seekers where they may be persecuted). He urged the Pakistan government’s National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) to direct state authorities to stop the deportations.
“The NCHR has the jurisdiction … if it fails to exercise it, we might go to the high court,” said Gilani, who is supporting 100 Afghan human rights defenders seeking asylum in Islamabad. He said his clients were extremely disturbed about the arrests in Sindh.
Farah Zia, the director of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, condemned the treatment of Afghans, particularly the arrests of women and children “because their vulnerability is compounded by their gender and age and lack of connections with local networks”.
In December, leaked photos of imprisoned women and children in Karachi went viral.
Last year, the commission wrote to the government, urging it to develop a more humane policy towards Afghan refugees.
The Sindh authorities have defended their actions. “The government is only taking action against illegal immigrants; those living without a valid travel document,” said their spokesperson Murtaza Wahab.
Nida Amiri*, a registered asylum seeker in Karachi, told of “sleepless nights” since the crackdown. Her husband, a prominent government official, is in hiding in Afghanistan. “I have headaches, and my blood pressure refuses to come down,” said Amiri, 47, who left Kabul in December 2021 and is now working as a cook.
She added: “I would rather die in prison than return to Kabul, where we cannot even breathe freely.”
She has a registration card from the Society for Human Rights and Prisoners’ Aid (Sharp), which partners with the UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR) to initially assess asylum cases. But a Sharp employee said the card “cannot save her from being hauled in”.
Amiri’s 21-year old daughter, Afshaneh Noor, said that living in Pakistan may not be easy, but if she was sent back she would be “a prisoner in my home”. “It’s the worst place on Earth to be in for a woman, right now,” she said.
Her 14-year-old sister and nine-year-old brother are no longer allowed to go to school, she said, because their mother is so worried they’ll be detained. “She has told us to always carry the Sharp card and to avoid leaving the home unless absolutely necessary,” said Noor. “We tell people we are from Chitral [a region in northern Pakistan bordering Afghanistan].”
Nadera Najeeb*, 43, a widow and mother of six, belongs to the Hazara community, a predominantly Shia Muslim minority group persecuted by the Taliban. She entered Pakistan illegally with five of her children – two sons and three daughters – two months ago. “I was forced to run away, otherwise my daughters would be raped by the Taliban,” she said. Before leaving, she married her eldest daughter to a cousin’s son, leaving her in Kabul.
Najeeb, who works at a fishery in Karachi, has begun to wear a black abaya – a long, loose coat that covers her head and face so that only her eyes show. “This way no one can tell I’m an Afghan or belong to the Hazara community,” she said. “I took this difficult journey to keep my kids safe; if we’re put behind bars and then sent back, all this will be for nothing.”
Qaiser Khan Afridi, a UNHCR spokesperson, said the organisation is working to identify the most vulnerable asylum cases for resettlement, including women-headed households and families with children at risk. The UNHCR was striving to find “durable solutions” for refugees, but it was up to governments to grant asylum.
“Resettlement, unfortunately, cannot be available for the entire refugee population as the opportunities are limited,” he said.
*Names have been changed to protect identities
(c) 2023, The Guardian