In a damning report on the “forced returns” of Afghan refugees released Monday, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the Pakistani government to avoid recreating conditions in 2017 that coerced the involuntary return of refugees to Afghanistan in 2016.
In its report titled “Pakistan Coercion, UN Complicity: The Mass Forced Return of Afghan Refugees”, the HRW asks the government of Pakistan to end police abuse, revert to its earlier policy of extending Proof of Registration cards by at least two years, avoid creating anxiety about deportation of Afghans and allow undocumented Afghan refugees seeking protection to request and obtain it in Pakistan.
The HRW conducted 115 interviews with refugee returnees in Afghanistan and refugees and undocumented Afghans in Pakistan.
The primary research was supplemented by UN reports presenting the reasons thousands of Afghans gave for returning to Afghanistan. The findings suggested that Pakistani pressure on Afghan refugees left many of them with no choice but to leave Pakistan in 2016.
The HRW also holds the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) complicit in the “coerced return” of Afghan refugees, and calls on it to “speak out as necessary and challenge any repeat in 2017 of the appalling and unlawful pressure Pakistan placed on Afghans in 2016, that coerced many to return to danger and destitution in Afghanistan in such massive numbers.” According to the report, Pakistan has hosted over a million Afghan refugees for most of the last 40 years.
In the second half of 2016, 365,000 of the 1.5 million registered refugees were “pushed out by a toxic combination of deportation threats and police abuses.”
About 200,000 of the 1m undocumented Afghan refugees in Pakistan returned to their country over the same period. The HRW terms the exodus “the world’s largest unlawful mass forced return of refugees in recent times.”
Pakistan is bound by the universally-binding customary law of refoulement preventing the return of people to a place where they would face risk of persecution, torture, ill treatment or threat to life. Pakistani authorities, however, made it clear in public statements they would like to see similar numbers of refugees return to Afghanistan in 2017, the HRW said.
The statements came at a time the Afghan conflict has killed and wounded more civilians than at any other time since 2009, displaced at least 1.5m people and left a third of the population destitute, according to the HRW.
There have been no new Afghan refugees registered in Pakistan since 2007 despite lack of meaningful improvement in human rights conditions in Afghanistan.
Additionally, the UNHCR lacks the capacity to register and process the claims of tens of hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers. The UNHCR in Dec 2016 warned that the massive number of returns could “develop into a major humanitarian crisis”.
UNHCR Spokesperson Ms Duniya Aslam Khan, quoted by the HRW, has said the UNHCR does not promote returns to Afghanistan given the enduring conflict and its limited absorption capacity to cope with returning refugees. —AFP