THE continued presence of some 1.7 million registered and 1.3m unregistered Afghan refugees in Pakistan highlights the state’s inability to find a long-term solution to the refugee crisis. Recently, the national census was delayed partly because of the provinces’ objections to their presence. There are calls for swift repatriations, perhaps out of fear that the census might reflect or even sanctify demographic changes.
Militancy in the country and the Zarb-i-Azb operation in Fata all seem to have prompted local stakeholders to erroneously link the entire Afghan refugee population with terrorism and civil unrest. Demands for repatriating the refugees have increased in the last two years, with refugees routinely facing hostility, discrimination and police abuse.
While some have argued for outright repatriation, others have taken a more nuanced approach, recognising that second- and third-generation refugees are hardly distinguishable from the local population, live in major urban centres, and contribute to the economy, and that they should be treated differently based on their status and contribution. Refugees historically belonging to the migrant community in Fata with relatives across the border can reside in Fata, but not beyond. Law-abiding businessmen and traders would be eligible for long-term visas, but other refugees would be repatriated.
National politics and ideology have also dictated how refugees are treated or perceived domestically; for example, Kashmiri refugees and their descendants enjoy many of the privileges of citizenship in Pakistan, including the right to vote. This favouritism is at odds with the right to non-discrimination enshrined in Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), under which no distinction is allowed on the basis of national or social origin or the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs.
Pakistan must fulfil its obligations to displaced Afghans.
The UN refugee agency has entered into a number of agreements with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran separately and jointly, for facilitating the voluntary repatriation and protection of Afghan refugees and assisting the host countries realise these objectives. In 2013, Pakistan issued a national policy on Afghan refugees. Pakistan has issued Proof of Registration (PoR) cards to Afghan refugees which allow them to remain in the country for short durations (six months to a year) though these periods are often renewed when the deadline is set to expire. The duration of the renewal is a politically charged affair where the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions and the foreign affairs ministry often find themselves on opposite sides. In January, the government extended PoR cards until June 30, 2016.
While the status quo is maintained, without peace and stability in Afghanistan there can be no long-term resolution of the refugee crisis in Pakistan anytime soon. This does not mean that Pakistan can escape its commitments under human rights and international refugee law.
Under Article 14 (1) of the UDHR, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”. While Pakistan has not signed the convention relating to the status of refugees (1951), nor its 1967 protocol which removed the geographic and temporal limits of the 1951 convention, it is still bound by Article 33(1) of the refugee convention because the right against refoulement outlined therein has crystallised into a binding norm of customary international law. Under this “no contracting state shall expel or return (refouler) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”.
Last year was an extremely bloody one for Afghanistan as the Afghan Taliban achieved several battlefield successes. Pakistan is aware that the security situation next door is tenuous. It is directly involved in peace talks with the Taliban. Recently, Gen Raheel Sharif also promised full support to Kabul for peace efforts. While Pakistan has a role to play in the quest for peace in Afghanistan it must also meet its human rights obligations,
particularly by extending the protections afforded under the obligation of non-refoulement.
One can’t, however, have one’s cake and eat it too; on the one hand Pakistani officials critique the security situation in Afghanistan, blaming Kabul for not doing enough to rein in the militants, including those engaged in conflict with Pakistan’s military. On the other hand, the establishment argues that it is safe enough to repatriate the millions of Afghan refugees in Pakistan. This dichotomy is untenable; Pakistan must ensure that refugees under its care are extended the necessary protections afforded to them under international law.
Sikander Ahmed Shah is former legal adviser, Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Abid Rizvi is an expert on international law.
Published in Dawn, March 6th, 2016