LAHORE: Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) in a open letter to President Arif Alvi and Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad has urged the state to immediately address the situation of Afghan refugees in the country, which, in the absence of any comprehensive policy framework or legislation, has been sidelined.
According to HRCP statement on Monday, the Commission says contrary to the Prime Minister’s public announcements, ordinary citizens from Afghanistan have been left to fend for themselves amid new and arbitrary restrictions on cross-border movement. “This dire lack of protocol and policy is unjust and serves only to aggravate the tension between the two countries rather than restoring balance in such a precarious situation.
HRCP said historically, Parliament has never held a discussion on the situation of Afghan refugees, relegating this issue to the military domain instead where policies have been made in secrecy. “In similar fashion, public debate on this issue has been ousted and ‘secret briefings’ held, which HRCP deems unacceptable. The Cabinet’s 2017 decision to adopt a national policy on the management of Afghan refugees and nationals in Pakistan along specific parameters must be revived immediately, and the Parliamentary Committee of the Whole, in consultation with civil society organizations, must develop a substantial policy to address the matter in a way that upholds human rights and humanitarian law. This policy must also be announced in Parliament to allow for much-needed discussion and debate before it is implemented,” it added.
HRCP said there is a worrying lack of clarity at the grassroots level about how to respond to this crisis, especially among border patrol and the police. Multiple reports from the border indicate that authorities have been extorting refugees for money, giving preferential treatment, refusing entry, and even subjecting them to violence. Refugee camps also suffer from poor hygienic conditions and refugees continue to experience harassment and xenophobia from local administrations and communities.
While the interests and perspective of host communities should be considered, such hostile treatment exacerbates the stress and trauma of refugees, particularly children. Allowances must be made, such as easing cumbersome documentation requirements, providing more dignified living situations, and making every effort to provide a safer, more inclusive environment. This will only be possible if the state listens proactively to the concerns of Afghan representatives and refugees rather than dismissing them.”
The Commission says Pakistan must accede to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, and pass national and domestic legislation in light of these obligations. Furthermore, Pakistan must honour its own precedent of accepting Afghan refugees and adhere to the tripartite agreement between UNHCR, Afghanistan and Pakistan whereby repatriation has to be voluntary, it added.
HRCP says Afghan citizens were recently allowed to obtain permission letters or cards from the Ministry of Interior in Islamabad while in Afghanistan, which is impractical. HRCP urges the government to hasten the paperwork needed to secure safe transit and visas for asylum seekers. “The government should also take UNHCR on board so that an easy and effective registration policy can be initiated without delay. Moreover, civil society should be encouraged to assist refugees to whatever extent possible instead of being harassed by state authorities when such efforts are made. Finally, the government must take immediate steps to ensure that refugees have unhindered access to an overall rehabilitation plan that includes healthcare, employment and education for their children,” said the Commission.
“As part of the international community, Pakistan’s civil society is rightly concerned for the people of Afghanistan and considers that any human rights issue supersedes notions of sovereignty. We therefore condemn such barriers or refusals at the border to refugees and especially women, children, the sick and elderly – who require our support and empathy in their hour of need,” the Commission concluded.