Thursday Mar 02, 2017
LAHORE: The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' (UNHCR) helpline for Afghan refugees hasn't stopped ringing since the day after a suicide bomber struck Lahore's Mall road killing 14 people. Every day it has received no fewer than 200 calls per day, majority from Afghans living in Punjab complaining of abuse, harassment and violence by law enforcement agencies.
"This new kind of harassment is unprecedented," says Mudassar Javed, Director of the Islamabad-based Society for Human Rights and Prisoners' Aid, which operates the helpline in partnership with the UNHCR.
"For the first time, Afghan women and children are being detained along with the men.”
Last week, in the city of Rahimyar Khan, several poor families, including children as young as two, were arrested even though they held Proof of Registration cards that allow them to reside legally in Pakistan.
Javed and his team are in contact with authorities to plead for their release. "The police claim to have lost the cards. This seems to be a new tactic to keep the Afghan behind bars for longer," he says.
In February Pakistan experienced a resurgence of terrorism. Over 100 people were killed in nine major terror incidents. After the Lahore bombing – the prime minister's hometown – Punjab's chief minister and brother of the PM, Shahbaz Sharif, delivered a video address saying the suicide bomber was identified as an Afghan. Shortly afterwards, it seems, the Punjab police launched an unannounced and unprovoked crackdown on Afghan refugee camps in the province.
Police have reportedly arrested over 200 suspects, mostly Afghan nationals, in mopping-up operations across the province.
Afghan refugees sit on sacks filled with used plastic items to sell at their makeshift shelter in a slum on the outskirt of Lahore January 12, 2015.—Photo by Reuters
The refugees first arrived in Pakistan fleeing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Today, there are an estimated 1.23 million registered and 600,000 undocumented Afghan refugees. After hosting them for several decades, Pakistan has recently intensified its drive to send them back home, labelling them a national security risk.
The bulk of Afghan refugees reside in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan province, while a far smaller percentage live in Punjab. There are an estimated 150,000 Afghans in Punjab, according to the UNHCR, most living in poor neighborhoods, where they work as laborers, vendors, or garbage scavengers.
Noor Aftab, 36, was born in Pakistan. He has lived with his five children in a rented house outside Rawalpindi for several years. Now, he is being told to leave. "The police barged into our house the other day. They told our home owners that they should be ashamed for hosting Afghans," Aftab told Geo.TV.
"There is not one man in my community who has not been to a police station," says Jahangir Khan, a resident of Lahore, who collects paper and plastic waste from the streets to sell. "Everyone is being picked up these days. Police are searching from house to house."
The security agencies, he adds, keep their residency cards and present them in court as illegal immigrants.
Troublingly, the recent raids are also alleged to be racially motivated. According to human rights activists, law enforcement agencies are targeting Punjab's ethnic Pashtun population with the Afghan refugees, who are also predominately Pashtuns.
Government officials admit there have been some, although rare, incidents of mistaken identity.
"The police are running around a little confused," says Usman Ghani, project manager at the government's Commissionerate for Afghan Refugees in Punjab. "They do at times find it difficult to differentiate between a Pashtun from Pakistan and one from Afghanistan."
On Monday, the Khyber Pakhunthkwa Assembly witnessed a heated debate over the ongoing arrests and alleged stereotyping of Pashtuns in Punjab. "If the Punjab government does not stop, then people in Peshawar, Mardan and Charsadda have the right to expel the Punjabi-speaking people from the province," Dawn quoted an Awami National Party leader as saying.
Meanwhile, the federal government has issued a notification, dated Feb.24, which extends the legal residency status of the refugees till December 31. It further calls for the registration of all Afghan refugees and advises state institutions that, until the documentation process is complete, the "harassment of unregistered Afghan refugees and application of Section 14 of the Foreigners Act, 1946 should be avoided."
Even after the latest directive, the arrest and detentions are only getting uglier, says Javed.
"It is unfortunate. Pakistan has hosted the Afghans for 40 years, and it still does not have a single decent policy to deal with them."