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Afghan refugees: the humiliated and insulted: by Dr Mohammad Taqi in Daily Times, Nov 19, 2015

19 November 2015 No Comment

The Paris massacre perpetrated by a jihadist band has the whole world grieving alongside the French. In tandem with the condemnations of the jihadist terror have been voices calling for a rethink of European and North American policies dealing with the refugees leaving Syria. While a Syrian passport found near the Stade de France attack site has not been conclusively linked to the attackers, it already fed the frenzy over tightening screws on the refugee influx into Europe. The knee-jerk response impugning the bona fides of over a million refugees making their way to Europe is reminiscent of the crackdown against Afghan refugees in Pakistan after the December 16, 2014 attack on the Army Public School (APS) in Peshawar. The Pakistani authorities have not put forth to date any evidence whatsoever tying any Afghan refugee to that heinous attack but the clampdown against the registered and unregistered Afghans in Pakistan has been relentless. In fact, no Afghan refugee — documented or undocumented — has ever been linked to any major terrorist attack in Pakistan. As the west ponders how to handle the refugee crisis amidst a rising chorus for harsh measures in Europe, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released on November 18, 2015 a comprehensive report on the plight of Afghan refugees, titled ‘What are you doing here? Police abuses against Afghans in Pakistan’.

The HRW report, written by Patricia Gossman and the lawyer-writer Saroop Ijaz, is an exhaustive but grim document that deals with the excesses and abuses against Afghans in Pakistan, especially in the aftermath of the APS attack. The HRW research was conducted from April to October 2015 and is based on interviews with the Afghan refugees living in and around Peshawar, and also the ones who had returned to Afghanistan. The latter group was interviewed in Kabul. The interviewees were randomly selected and were given no compensation of any kind. The Pakistani, Afghan and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) officials were also interviewed. The HRW report’s sample size might be small but the realities it highlights are stark and have consequences for yet another generation of Afghans living in camps and cities in Pakistan.

According to UNHCR, Afghans remained the world’s largest refugee and displaced population group for 32 consecutive years until 2014, when the Syria and Iraq crises displaced a larger number of people. Over five million Afghans have returned home from around the world since the Taliban government was toppled in 2001-2002 but an estimated 3.7 million still remain displaced, of which 1.5 million documented and a million undocumented remain in Pakistan. The HRW report tells the story of these 2.5 million, many of whom have been humiliated and insulted, deprived of shelter, livelihood and, at times, forced to return to a perilous future in their war-ravaged homeland.

The Afghan refugees arrived in Pakistan in four waves: after the 1979 Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, after the toppling of Dr Mohammad Najibullah’s government in 1992, after the Taliban takeover of Kabul in 1996 and, finally, after the Taliban oustre in 2001-2002. From being the darlings of the west –whose dignitaries used to visit them in tent villages — and Pakistan’s military regime under General Ziaul Haq, to getting marginalised and ignored in subsequent years, to being actively maligned and harassed for nearly a year now, politics around the Afghan refugees have mirrored where the Pakistani state’s priorities vis-à-vis the Kabul government of the time lie. A senior Afghan official expressed concern that (in the wake of the APS attack) “Pakistan would use the refugee card as a political stick with us whenever there is a downturn in the relationship.” The concern is legitimate as, despite being rather gracious in hosting the Afghan refugees for over three decades, Pakistan has not been shy of using them as a trope in the anti-Soviet narrative and a convenient piñata that is blamed — without any proof whatsoever — for terror.

HRW draws attention to how increasing hostility towards the Afghans after the APS attack has translated into an extremely callous attitude by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government and downright brutality by its police department. The report notes that so heartless was the provincial government’s attitude that the federal authorities had to intercede with it to scale back. The report cites a refugee on how “The police did not use to beat us much before December 16, 2014. Now they beat us for no reason. I am afraid that one day when I have no bribe money, they will kill me.” Testimony after testimony from Afghan street vendors, students and common folk speaks of police highhandedness, extortion and blatant cruelty against a people who have little or no legal recourse. According to HRW, even Afghan refugee women are being subjected to scrutiny and the children face difficulty in going to schools. Apparently, access to healthcare has become an ordeal for Afghan families. The torment has been so persistent that many Afghans opted to go back to their native land despite imminent danger to life. HRW details the systematic intimidation and abuse of both the Afghans living in deep fear in Pakistan and those who found it unbearable enough to take their chances in their volatile country.

The HRW report includes a practical and comprehensive set of recommendations for the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan, the UNHCR and their international partners. Citing the relevant international humanitarian law, HRW has urged Pakistan to ratify the Refugee Convention, adopt a national refugee law and fulfil its international humanitarian obligations. The single most important and time sensitive HRW recommendation is for Pakistan to renew, through December 2017, the Proof of Registration (PoR) cards for Afghan refugees, which are set to lapse next month. It has also asked for a written government directive to “cease unlawful surveillance, harassment, intimidation and violence against Afghans living in Pakistan”. HRW has urged the Afghan government to “ensure that the returnees have access to government health, education and land allocation regardless of their status in Pakistan”. Equally important is HRW’s call to the UNHCR to work with Pakistan to “ensure that undocumented Afghans seeking protection in Pakistan are referred to the UNHCR”.

In a recent address the ambassador of Afghanistan to Pakistan, His Excellency Mr Janan Mosazai noted: “The presence of Afghan refugees in Pakistan is a humanitarian issue and we are thankful to the government of Pakistan, especially Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif and his government, particularly leaders such as General Qadir Baloch, for their kind and generous attention to Afghan refugees in Pakistan and making sure their presence continues to be treated in a purely humanitarian context.” It is a heartening sign as Pakistani officials are expected to meet soon to adjudicate the extension of the Afghan refugee registration. The HRW report goes a long way to highlight the infinite human cost of the protracted conflict in Afghanistan. HRW’s thoughtful and thorough effort should be a reminder to the Afghan and Pakistani governments and the UNHCR that those humiliated and insulted daily are humans, not mere numbers.http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/opinion/19-Nov-2015/afghan-refugees-the-humiliated-and-insulted

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