With the Government of Pakistan’s announced deportation drive, the situation of Afghan refugees in Pakistan has taken a shocking turn. In this post, three women refugee researchers from Afghanistan, writing with ISS researchers Karin Astrid Siegmann and Saba Gul Khattak, state that the international community is looking on as Afghan refugees in Pakistan risk deportation to and persecution in Afghanistan. Rather than deporting them, these refugees, especially vulnerable groups, should be resettled to third countries or granted asylum in Pakistan. The international community has a duty to help them, they write.
The shadow of Israel’s bombings of Gaza makes other humanitarian crises invisible. While writing this post, as undocumented Afghan refugees in Pakistan, we are in danger of forced deportation to Afghanistan where persecution awaits us.
And we are not alone. Hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees in Pakistan face a similar threat. At least 1.3 million Afghan nationals live in Pakistan as refugees. In addition, more than 600,000 of us came after the Taliban took over the Afghan government in August 2021.
We see the Pakistan caretaker government’s recent announcement that it will deport all ‘illegal foreign nationals’ after 1 November 2023 as a form of collective punishment. The Pakistan government claims that this deportation is for national security, but it further destabilises our precarious situation.
Afghan refugees in Pakistan already face terrible conditions
As undocumented foreigners, securing our livelihood through employment in Pakistan is impossible. A general lack of proficiency in Urdu, Pakistan’s national language, further weakens our bargaining power in our host society. Over and above this, those of us who belong to the ethnic and religious minority of Hazara Shias are easily identifiable among Pakistan’s different ethnic set-up. Our faces are our passport, so to speak. In Afghanistan, Hazara Shias face persecution which has caused hundreds of civilian casualties in unlawful targeted killings. In Pakistan, we and face similar discrimination on ethnic and religious grounds.
Deportation plan pits refugees against Pakistani people
The government of Pakistan’s announcement has aggravated this dire situation. While the Pakistani population has long hosted their Afghan neighbours in times of crises, the deportation plan cruelly pits the refugee population against Pakistani people. The government has announced strict legal action against any Pakistani citizen who, for instance, provides accommodation to ‘illegal aliens’. We see how Pakistanis have become even more hostile as a result.
Police harassment has become more pronounced, too. A year ago, the police would just knock at the door; now, they directly enter our homes. A recent fact-finding mission of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has found that several Afghan settlements in Islamabad have been demolished by the Capital Development Authority (CDA), ostensibly as part of an anti-encroachment drive. In fact, most residents are registered refugees and said they have been subjected to harassment, intimidation and extortion by the police following the government’s notification on foreigners.
In this crisis, we are asking: Where are the international champions of human rights?
The UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, whose stated objective it is to “protect refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people”, has failed Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Following the Taliban takeover, the agency issued a non-refoulment (no forced return) advisory for Afghans outside of their home country. When, in early October, the government of Pakistan announced its plan to deport undocumented foreigners, UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) appealed to Pakistan “to continue its protection of all vulnerable Afghans who have sought safety in the country and could be at imminent risk if forced to return.”
Yet, the fact that the UNHCR has not registered a large portion of Afghan refugees in Pakistan has made them vulnerable in the first place. Hundreds of thousands of undocumented Afghans, especially women refugees, musicians, and social media activists living in Pakistan are now at risk because the registration of Afghan refugees has been stalled by this very UN agency. They now live in terror of deportation to a country that actively enforces gender apartheid and persecutes people based on their ethnicity, religion, and professional work. Instead of citing international customary law, and recent judgments from Pakistani courts that clearly state that Afghan asylum seekers have a right to asylum, UNHCR and IOM have adopted a stoic silence.
Western government’s calls to respect women’s rights are hollow
The protestations of western governments to ‘stand up for the rights of women in Afghanistan’ ring hollow in our ears. In 2001, the Taliban’s treatment of women provided the United States (US) with a justification for bombing Afghanistan (see also here). When the US signed the Doha Accord with the Taliban in February 2020 to bring an end to almost twenty years of war, this concern for women’s rights was forgotten, though. Meanwhile, our sisters in Afghanistan who have raised their voices against women’s systematic discrimination through laws and policies that have made women prisoners in their own country by the new Taliban government have been detained and subjected to threats, beatings and electric shocks by the Taliban authorities.
The countries that approved of the Doha Accord, a deal that excluded the Afghan government, share responsibility for the exit of Afghan nationals from their homes and their country. However, they turn a blind eye to the violations of human rights in Afghanistan as they do not wish to accept Afghan refugees.
The international community must break the silence — now
To address the ongoing humanitarian crisis that Afghan refugees in Pakistan face, the international community needs to break its silence and increase resettlement quotas immediately. Refugees who have been screened and identified as priority cases for resettlement need to be reassured that they will not be sent back to Afghanistan. The approximately 20,000–25,000 vulnerable Afghans identified by UNHCR need to be resettled abroad as soon as possible. We also call for the UNHCR definition of vulnerable Afghans to include those who worked for the civil bureaucracy, the military and police forces of Afghanistan during the time of the Ashraf Ghani government, but also single women and mothers.
Finally, the right to seek asylum is recognized as an international human right by Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Pakistan must be persuaded to grant asylum to Afghans in Pakistan rather than deporting us. We contribute to Pakistan’s society and economy in numerous ways. That contribution needs to be recognised.
Follow Bliss on LinkedIn.
Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.
About the authors:
Three women refugee researchers from Afghanistan have fled Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover in August 2021 for fear of detention as human and women rights activists.
Karin Astrid Siegmann is an Associate Professor in Labour and Gender Economics at ISS.
Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.