Afghan refugees’ enigma


Pakistan faces a Catch22 situation on their exodus


A Human Rights Watch Report has criticised Pakistan and UN Commissioner for Human Rights (UNCHR) for the forced repatriation of Afghans from Pakistan using strong arm tactics.  Allegedly, the coercive measures included police abuses, intimidation and harassment, arbitrary arrest and detention, threats of deportation, extortion, demolition of houses, exclusion of children from schools, closing schools of Afghan refugees and hikes in rents by landlords.


This ‘toxic combination’ resulted in late 2016 in the expulsion of 365,000 out of 1.5 million registered and 200,000 of 1 million undocumented refugees, and not the blandishment of the paltry $400 handout by the ‘complicit’ UNCHR. The Report terms the mass deportations  refoulement, a violation of customary international law, as returnees face persecution, torture, ill-treatment or death in Afghanistan, and asks Pakistan to extend the refugee permits to 2019.


For Pakistan, the conundrum presents a ‘damned if I do, and damned if I don’t’ situation. The watershed Army Public School attack of December 2014 created the National Action Plan which included the repatriation of Afghan refugees in its agenda, and in effect politicized a purely humanitarian issue. Declining Pak-Afghan relations and corresponding cosying up to arch-rival India by Afghanistan exacerbated the divide, and skirmishes along the Torkham border did not help matters. A false perception also arose in laymen thinking that the Afghan refugees were involved in terrorism, contrary to the known facts. These factors forced the Pakistan government’s hand, which had accepted the refugees for four decades, providing them with jobs, medical health and schooling. The government has now extended the last date of return to end of 2017 and may relax it further to avoid the kind of international flak attracted by the hasty repatriation  of National Geographic’s Afghan girl, Sharbat Gula.


Afghanistan in 2016 faced its worst turmoil since 2009 in numbers of civilian casualties, displacement of 1.5 million people and one third of its population destitute. At this juncture, Pakistan should revert to its original humanitarian stand, while concentrating on strict documentation.