Pakistan: Government must stop harassing and arbitrarily arresting Afghans seeking refuge

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Pakistan: Government must stop harassing and arbitrarily arresting Afghans seeking refuge

The Government of Pakistan must urgently stop arbitrarily arresting and harassing Afghan refugees and asylum seekers, many of whom are fleeing persecution by the Taliban, Amnesty International said today as it marks World Refugee Day.

In recent years, many Afghans living in fear of persecution following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021 have fled to Pakistan, where they have been subjected to waves of arbitrary detentions, arrests, and the threat of deportation. Because of considerable delays in the registration process, most do not hold Proof of Registration (PoR) cards, the identity document entitling Afghan refugees to remain regularly in Pakistan. Many arrived in Pakistan with regular visas, which have since expired.

“It is deeply concerning that the situation of Afghan refugees in Pakistan is not receiving due international attention. Being unable to return home or stay permanently in Pakistan, they are caught in an impossible situation from which there is no escape. Their ambiguous legal status and arduous processes for asylum or third country relocation have made them even more vulnerable,” said Dinushika Dissanayake, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for South Asia.

Being unable to return home or stay permanently in Pakistan, they are caught in an impossible situation from which there is no escape.

Dinushika Dissanayake, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for South Asia

Amnesty International conducted nine new remote interviews with Afghan including with six who had been detained in Pakistan over the course of the last three months. This is in addition to several other interviews held with Afghan refugees in Pakistan last year in 2022 along with continuous media monitoring and review of official documents. Afghan refugees have raised serious concerns about harassment by Pakistani police and officials.

‘Our lives in Pakistan are no lives at all’

Hussain,* a former employee of the Ministry of the Interior in Afghanistan (MoI), fled to Pakistan with his family in 2022 after narrowly escaping the Taliban in Kabul. He was recently detained amid a round of arrests and faced harassment by the Pakistani authorities.

In February 2023, police raided and ransacked Hussain’s home in Islamabad, as well as the homes of several other Afghan families in his neighborhood. He says he was handcuffed and brought to the police station at about 10pm, where he was interrogated about their immigration status, employment and social circles. Around 20 other Afghans were also detained and brought to station.

“They took our passports and wallets from us, and then searched our bodies multiple times. They detained even those of us that had valid visas and were in the country legally,” he said.

They took our passports and wallets from us, and then searched our bodies multiple times. They detained even those of us that had valid visas and were in the country legally.

An Afghan refugee

The next morning, Hussain was released after paying a “fine” of 30,000 rupees, yet the police refused to give him any documentation outlining the reason for his detention or a receipt for the fine. Five other detained Afghans interviewed by Amnesty International share similar accounts of separate incidents in which they were all forced to pay fines of between 5,000 and 30,000 rupees, and none were given paperwork confirming their detention or fine. “Our lives in Pakistan are no lives at all,” Hussain said.

These cases represent just a small number of the many Afghans who have arrived seeking asylum in Pakistan, with the ultimate aim of building a new life in the country or relocating to a third country via Pakistan. The threats and harassment they have suffered have been amplified amid delays of the third-country relocation processes and expired visas, since it makes them legally vulnerable.

Countries that offered special relocation schemes to Afghan individuals facing persecution by the Taliban, including the United States of America, Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany, are currently not issuing visas within Afghanistan, where they do not have diplomatic representations. At the same time, the process for issuing them in Pakistan remains complicated and lengthy with a waiting time of many months. For example, in October 2022 Germany launched a humanitarian admission program for Afghans at risk of persecution, aiming at bringing up to 1,000 Afghans to Germany per month. According to media sources, as of June 2023 the program had not taken anyone to Germany yet and the Afghans who were told by the German authorities to travel to Pakistan to have their visas processed are still there.

Afghans seeking asylum must also endure a prolonged process when trying to obtain proof of registration from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Combined with lengthy visa renewals from the Pakistani government, these delays are making it easier for the police to harass them and for other authorities to extort money from them — practices that have been reported across Pakistan, including in Sindh, Karachi, Peshawar, Chaman, and Quetta, among others.

The Afghans speaking with Amnesty International said that they felt that their right to freedom of expression was being significantly curtailed, as they were unable to complain publicly about the challenges they face, because of their precarious legal status. The situation is particularly dire for women and girls, who face discrimination in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

‘We must pay a bribe’

Afghans without documents to prove their legal status are unable to secure formal employment and often end up working in low-wage jobs where they are vulnerable to exploitation.

Without a PoR card or visa, it is also difficult to get SIM cards or set up bank accounts, which prevents Afghans from receiving money from their relatives. Landlords also take advantage of their lack of proof of regular status.

“If you don’t have a card, then you can’t get a legal housing lease, so instead we must pay a bribe to a broker,” said Hussain, referring to PoR cards.

Many of the recent arrivals must travel to the Afghanistan/Pakistan border and officially leave Pakistan in order to renew their visas, which can prove both costly and dangerous. Two interviewees said border guards demanded bribes before allowing them to cross the border, even though they possessed valid visas.

The Pakistani authorities often rely on the Foreigners Act, 1946 to detain Afghans in the country even when they have valid documents.  Despite contacting human rights groups in Pakistan, recently detained Afghan refugees said they were provided no legal protections while in police custody. In addition, Afghans often struggle to access healthcare and education for their children, as some schools refuse to enroll them due to ambiguities surrounding their legal status. For women and girls, it is especially difficult to enroll in schools in Pakistan due to gender discrimination.

Bureaucratic hurdles

The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, is responsible for registering Afghans seeking asylum, providing them with Proof of Registration (PoR) cards and determining whether they are refugees. The UN agency contracted the Society for Human Rights and Prisoners’ Aid (SHARP) for this registration process, yet those interviewed told Amnesty International they have faced long waiting times at the SHARP office when seeking to schedule an interview, and sluggish responses to calls, making it virtually impossible for recently arrived Afghans to receive legal documentation quickly.

Ahmad,* another asylum seeker interviewed by Amnesty International, called the UNHCR in Pakistan seeking proof of registration in November 2021. He was asked to submit his biometrics in August 2022, but ten months later, he is yet to receive his official registration card.

For Ahmad, Hussain and other Afghan refugees in Pakistan who worked for the former Afghan government or worked in civil society, returning to Afghanistan is impossible.

“Afghans seeking asylum were first punished by the Taliban — and now by arduous registration, asylum and visa processes. The international community has failed to provide adequate protection to those fleeing persecution in Afghanistan, in sharp contrast to the initial promises made. These Afghans are in urgent need of greater support,” said Dinushika Dissanayake.

Afghans seeking asylum were first punished by the Taliban — and now by arduous registration, asylum and visa processes. The international community has failed to provide adequate protection to those fleeing persecution in Afghanistan.

Dinushika Dissanayake

“Amnesty International is calling on the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to expedite registration and reviews of applications from Afghans seeking refugee status in Pakistan, on the Government of Pakistan to stop arbitrarily arresting and harassing Afghan refugees and on third countries offering relocation to Afghans abroad to expedite the issuance of visas.”

Background:

Amnesty International has changed the names of all those interviewed to protect their identity. On 14 June 2023, Amnesty International contacted the Government of Pakistan, UNHCR and SHARP about its findings, but has not received a response until publication.

Due to the risk of persecution, the UNHCR issued a non-return advisory for Afghans outside of their home country following the Taliban takeover. According to the UNHCR, there are more than 3.7 million Afghans in Pakistan, who fled Afghanistan for both economic and political reasons. Only 1.4 million of them are formally registered.

On 15 December 2022, Amnesty International raised its concerns with regard to the situation of Afghan asylum seeker and refugees to the Government of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

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