September saw an alarming rise in the rounding up and detention of Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Authorities cite illegal immigration and rising crime as the reason behind the crackdown. However, even those with documentation – some 1.4m, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the refugee agency – are being taken away by police, community leaders say.
Activists, offering a clearer picture, say that some of those rounded up had Proof of Registration cards and Afghan Citizenship Cards, but that these had expired. The recent uptick in arrests follows a rise in tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan after the banned Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan carried out a cross-border attack on security check-posts in Chitral. So, are these refugees merely scapegoats, who are paying the price for geopolitical disputes and terror attacks that they are not responsible for? Are they being targeted simply because they are Afghan?
It is ironic that Pakistan frequently urges other nations to open their doors to refugees. Yet, the treatment meted out to refugees within its borders often seems incongruous with these pleas. Pakistan is not a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention. Instead, it operates under the Foreigners Act, which empowers the authorities to arrest, hold, and deport foreigners, including refugees and asylum seekers, who do not possess valid documentation.
While the authorities must root out criminal elements and prevent illegal immigration, this broad-brush approach is problematic on two counts: first, it tarnishes Pakistan’s global image, and second, it alienates a community that has sought shelter on our land for decades. There are a number of ways to deal with this. The authorities must ensure transparency regarding their operations; these must be based on evidence, not prejudice. Secondly, the Foreigners Act must be re-evaluated to include a more humanitarian approach to dealing with refugees, in line with international norms.
Thirdly, Islamabad and Kabul would do well to engage in constructive dialogue and arrive at solutions that address the root cause behind continued tensions so that the refugees can be spared unjust scrutiny. And lastly, but perhaps most importantly, the basic human rights of the Afghans should be respected, regardless of documentation status. While national security is paramount, it must not come at the cost of human lives, and a tarnished international reputation. A balanced, compassionate and evidence-based approach is the need of the hour.
This article was first published in Dawn.