Pakistani Christian development workers requested the government of Pakistan to revise its policy towards Afghan refugees as it is still difficult for these refugees to go back to their native land because of the security situation in Afghanistan. Pakistan has been hosting some 1.7 million registered and 1.3 million unregistered Afghan refugees for more than three decades. As Pakistan has been trying to send these refugees back without delay, the United Nations High Commissioners for Refugees (UNHCR, UN refugee agency) has entered into agreement with Pakistan for facilitating the voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees. During the first half of the last year, over 50,000 registered Afghan refugees were repatriated. Many cannot go back as Afghanistan is still unsafe. The Taliban are conducting suicide attacks on the regular basis, killing many people and creating an atmosphere of fear.
Refugees have limited rights in Pakistan, as she is not a signatory to the Convention related to the Status of Refugees (commonly known as the 1951 Refugee Convention) and the 1967 Protocol. However, refugees’ temporary stay is regularised through Proof of Registration Card, which provides legal status to these refugees, so they could remain in the country for a temporary period.
Last year, Afghanistan’s government requested Pakistan to allow the registered Afghan refugees to stay in Pakistan for another two years. The request was made during a joint meeting of the representatives of Afghanistan, Pakistan and the UNHCR in Kabul, capital of Afghanistan, on 22 August. As a result, on 12 January, the government of Pakistan extended the Proof of Residency (PoR) cards until 30 June this year to the registered refugees. But, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that the Pakistani government should extend their legal residency status until at least 31 December 2017. Sarfarz Clement and Javaid Nazir from Action Against Poverty Pakistan, non-governmental organisation, run by Christian human rights activists, supported the call of the HRW. They told Minority Concern that thousands of refugees have been living in Pakistan for years, and they have never gone back to their native country. Furthermore, they have established their lives in Pakistan. Therefore, Pakistan should help them integrate into Pakistan rather than sending them back.
Afghan refugees started coming to its neighbouring countries Pakistan and Iran after the USSR’s (now Russia) invasion of Afghanistan in 1980s. Millions migrated to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA), near the Afghan border. Later, some moved to Azad Kashmir region (Pakistani controlled Kashmir region), the Punjab province and as well as Karachi, the biggest city in Pakistan. Around 36 percent Afghan refugees still live in the refugee camps without the basic facilities. There are more than 300 Afghan refugee camps along the Afghan-Pakistan border alone. The biggest refugee camp is Jalozai, 35 kilometres southeast of Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
Undeniably, life for Afghan refugees is not easy in Pakistan but still there is hope of a better standard of life. There are many Afghan families who have well established their roots in Pakistan. Their children who were born here consider Pakistan their mother land; and they have completely abandoned the option of going back to Afghanistan, said Hina Tabassum, a Pakistani researcher. Majority of these refugees do not know what happed to their home villages as they have been living in Pakistan for decades. Moreover, Afghan government is not yet ready and also reluctant to accept and accommodate those refugees who live in Pakistan. Despite the US government’s $1 billion financial support, Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation has made a little progress in implementing a strategy to bring back Afghan refugees. Many Afghan refugees complain that there was little immediate assistance and unsatisfactory long-term reintegration initiatives available in Afghanistan.
Though Pakistan is not the signatory of 1951 Geneva Convention, she is still a signatory of many other international laws, including United Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Under these laws, Pakistan still has the obligation to provide necessary protection to these refugees and should not push them to leave Pakistan until the security situation improves in Afghanistan.
Aftab Alexander Mughal is the editor of the Minority Concern of Pakistan magazine and former National Executive Secretary of the Justice and Peace Commission of Pakistan.