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Pakistan Detains Thousands of Refugees from Afghanistan in New Crackdown

A new wave of arrests by the Pakistani law enforcement agencies has renewed fear and uncertainty among refugees from Afghanistan, most of who fled Taliban persecution at home. In recent months, more than two thousand undocumented refugees from Afghanistan have been detained in Pakistan.  

Dozens of refugees from Afghanistan were apprehended in Balochistan’s Quetta as well as in Islamabad in recent days, a source, who runs a nonprofit working with refugees in Quetta, told KabulNow on condition of anonymity. Reports also indicate that at least 800 refugees, including children, were arrested in Sindh’s Karachi this week and more than 600 refugees were detained in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Peshawar in the last one and half months.

The escalation of the crackdown comes after the border dispute in Torkham that left at least eight people killed and 20 wounded after Pakistani and Taliban border guards exchanged fire on September 6 and the intense attacks by Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) the same day on Pakistani security forces which killed four soldiers in the northwestern Chitral district, which borders Afghanistan.

Islamabad blamed Kabul for “misusing” the transit trade agreement between the two neighbors and closed the key Torkham border crossing for nine days before reopening it on September 15. Pakistani authorities also claimed that militants who launched the attacks in Chitral had entered from eastern Afghanistan.

Pakistan has seen a sharp uptick in terrorist attacks since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, accusing the group of harboring militants—a charge the Taliban denies.

Last week, a furious Pakistani interim Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti warned of a plan to take firm actions against illegal refugees from Afghanistan. The Pakistani government has also carried out tightened border controls to block illegal entrants.

“Since this announcement, we have seen a surge in numbers of refugees being arbitrarily detained, imprisoned, and deported to Afghanistan,” Zara Khan, a Pakistani lawyer and rights activist in Islamabad, told KabulNow. “Sadly, expulsion will leave them at the mercy of the Taliban,” She worried.

Pakistan treats refugees under the 1946 Foreigners Act, which, Ms. Khan said, allows Pakistani authorities the right to detain and deport those who lack valid documentation, including refugees, migrants, and asylum-seekers.

Muhammad Alam, the Peshawar police spokesman, told The News International that hundreds of illegal refugees from Afghanistan were arrested under the Act in Peshawar.

But Ms. Khan said that in some cases, refugees with valid Pakistani visas were also apprehended and mistreated by police without any explanation as well as those who held the Proof of Registration (PoR) card, which grants them temporary legal status in the country.

Moniza Kakar, a lawyer in Karachi, confirmed this in a post on X. Photos she posted showed police had detained refugees from Afghanistan and confiscated their Pakistani government-issued registration cards. Ms. Kakar called for urgent help for the protection of refugees.

Pakistan has not signed the 1951 Geneva Convention nor its 1967 Protocol relating to the status of refugees, which defines the term “refugee” and outlines their rights and protection. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan called the recent crackdown alarming and urged the Pakistani government to seriously consider the Convention and its Protocol.

More than 600,000 nationals of Afghanistan have sought refuge in Pakistan since the Taliban overtook power two years ago, bringing the total number of Afghan refugees in the country to 3.7 million. Of this, only 1.32 million are officially registered with the UNHCR.

Among them are those still waiting to resettle in the West, mainly in the U.S., Canada, and European countries. According to the Associated Press, there are about 150,000 applicants for the US Special Immigration Visas (SIVs) as well as 27,400 applicants who applied for US P-1 and P-2 priority refugee protection programs. In June, the US State Department said that it has only relocated 24,000 applicants since September 2021.

Speaking with KabulNow via telephone, Mohammad Zaman, who holds a P-2 visa application and resides in Islamabad, complained about the slow process of cases, saying it has caused hopelessness and depression among refugees. He noted that the tragic suicide of Maryam Sadaat, a young Afghan woman who took her life in Islamabad late last month, was caused by the emotional toll of the delay in her P-2 case.

Yasin, a refugee who lives in Islamabad with his family after fleeing the Taliban, told KabulNow that he would risk deportation after their visa expires in less than a month. “I’m in constant fear that we will be expelled home, and if that materializes, my family and I will risk harm or death from the Taliban because of my work in the former government,” He worried, “that’s why I’ve restricted myself indoors, only going out when it is needed.”

Mr. Yasin has other family members in Pakistan who face similar difficulties, including his uncle and his family who stay in Karachi for medical reasons. “One of his sons was briefly jailed because he had forgotten to take his passport with him the day he was apprehended,” He said of his uncle.

In July, the Afghanistan Immigrants Council, which advocates for refugee rights, complained about how UNHCR handles refugee documents, warning of the consequences of Afghans’ deportation from Pakistan.

“If they [UNCHR] do not pay attention when the refugees are forcefully deported to Afghanistan, the greatest human disaster will occur, and the next responsibility will be directed to the UNHCR office.” The Council urged the UN agency to provide refugee cards to Afghans or convince the police to accept the SHARP [local partner with UNHCR] token as an authentic refugee document.

Qaisar Khan Afridi, the spokesman for the UNHCR Pakistan, said that rising reports of arrest and detention have been raised with the government of Pakistan, adding that people “should not be punished or criminalized for exercising their fundamental human right to seek asylum.”

“Sadly, the situation for Afghan refugees in Pakistan will continue to deteriorate if the Pakistani government doesn’t take the necessary measures to ensure legal protection for refugees under international law,” Ms. Khan said.