AI asks Pakistan to halt mass detentions, deportations of Afghan refugees

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deportations of Afghan refugees

ISLAMABAD, NOV 10 (DNA) — The Government of Pakistan must immediately halt the continued detentions, deportations and widespread harassment of Afghan refugees, said Amnesty International Friday.

“Thousands of Afghan refugees are being used as political pawns to be returned to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan where their life and physical integrity could be at risk amidst an intensified crackdown on human rights and an ongoing humanitarian catastrophe.

 No one should be subjected to mass forced deportations, and Pakistan would do well to remember its international legal obligations, including the principle of non-refoulement,” said Livia Saccardi, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for Campaigns for South Asia.

“If the Pakistani government doesn’t halt the deportations immediately, it will be denying thousands of at-risk Afghans, especially women and girls, access to safety, education and livelihood.”

According to the government, more than 170,000 Afghans, many of whom have lived in Pakistan for decades, have had to leave the country since 17 September as the government gave an ultimatum for all ‘unregistered foreign nationals’ to leave Pakistan.

Since the expiry of the 1 November deadline imposed by the Government of Pakistan, the police have moved from registering cases under the Foreigners Act, 1946 which among other things criminalizes illegal entry into Pakistan, to directly detaining refugees deemed ‘illegal’ at deportation centers.

Amnesty International has concerns about the complete lack of transparency, due process and accountability in the detentions and deportations over the last week. This has been exacerbated by increased incidents of harassment and hostility against Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

‘We were given no information where [family members] were taken and when they would be deported’ According to the government, 49 detention centers (also referred to as “holding” or “transit” centers) have been set up, with the possibility of more, across Pakistan. These deportation centers have not been constructed under a specified law and run parallel to the legal system.

Amnesty International has verified that in at least seven detention centers, no legal rights are extended to detainees such as the right to a lawyer or communication with family members. Such centers are in violation of right to liberty and a fair trial. Also, no information is made public, making it hard for families to trace their loved ones.

Maryam, an Afghan activist in Islamabad told Amnesty International that on 2 November several Afghan refugees were detained at the Shalimar Police station and “those without documentation were sent for deportation while their family members were given no information about where they were taken or when they would be deported.”

In another incident, a 17-year-old boy was detained in a raid in Sohrab Goth in Karachi on 3 November. Despite being born in Pakistan, holding a Proof of Registration (POR) card issued by the UNHCR and a minor, his family was not given access to the detention center. He was deported the next day and his exact whereabouts remain unknown.

Amnesty International has confirmed with journalists across Pakistan that the media has also not been given access to these centers, raising questions of transparency.

Junaid*, an Afghan refugee who was detained for more than four hours at the Khayaban-i-Sir Syed holding center in Islamabad on 3 November, said that there was a lack of translators at the center who could communicate in Dari or Pashto, which made understanding complex documentation issues difficult for those detained.

 “There is a sense of fear among the Afghan community… we live in constant anxiety, we lock our doors as soon as we hear any police cars in the area,” Junaid said.

Several instances of harassment have also been reported to Amnesty International. At least 12 small business owners who had valid Afghan Citizen Cards were detained for more than 24 hours on 1 November at Nishtar Colony and Garden Town Police Stations in Lahore without being produced in court or having a First Information Report (FIR) filed against them. On 24 October, Afghan traders in Akbari Mandi in Lahore were searched for documentation by individuals in plain clothes claiming to be police officials who confiscated Rs. 500,000 in cash.

Since the announcement of the deadline, warnings have been communicated through leaflets, loudspeakers at local mosques and statements that anyone found to be providing accommodation to Afghan refugees without documentation will be fined or arrested. Farah*, a woman journalist living in Peshawar, stated that while most Afghans are being turned away, “the landlords that are offering concessions are charging five times the rent that they normally would.”

Since early October, several katchi abadis (informal settlements) housing Afghan refugees have been demolished by the Capital Development Authority (CDA) in Islamabad. These demolitions were carried out with little due process or warning, as informal settlements have limited property rights, resulting in homes being destroyed with possessions still inside them.

There are approximately 200 Afghan journalists at risk in Pakistan according to the Pakistan-Afghan International Forum of Journalists. Asad an Afghan journalist hiding in Pakistan since the Taliban takeover in 2021, said:  “Even though I entered Pakistan on a valid visa and have applied for renewal, I do not have anything to show the authorities if they turn up at my doorstep. I have stopped sending my children to school for the past two weeks…”

Asad and his family fled Afghanistan in 2021 when his friends and colleagues were murdered after the Taliban came to power. “I am on several lists maintained by the Taliban and I am certain I will be killed if I go back,” he said.

Many women in Afghan-majority settlements live in extreme and constant anxiety. Human rights lawyer Moniza Kakar, who is representing cases of Afghan refugees in Karachi, said, “many women are sleeping fully covered (in veils) because they are afraid of night-time police raids by male police officers.”

Pakistani women married to Afghan refugees are also facing a heightened risk of deportation due to lack of proper documentation. Due to cultural and economic barriers in Pakistan, women often lack access to Computerized National Identity Cards (CNIC) with a 10 million gender gap reported in electoral rolls.

Amnesty International has documented the draconian and systemic repression of the rights of women and girls by the Taliban for more than two years now.

Afghan refugees who are religious minorities face added intersectional challenges amid deportations with the double threat of persecution upon their return. An activist working with Christian refugee communities in Islamabad, Chaman and Quetta, shared that a shelter housing a dozen Christian refugee families was forced to shut down after police raids.

“Pakistan must fulfil its obligations under international human rights law to ensure safety and well-being of Afghan refugees within its borders and immediately halt deportations to prevent further escalation of this crisis. The government, along with UNHCR, must expedite the registration of applicants seeking refuge in Pakistan, particularly women and girls, journalists, and those belonging to minority and ethnic communities as they face heightened risks,” said Livia Saccardi. — DNA