Wednesday December 08, 2021

Open letter to president, interior minister: HRCP urges govt to address Afghan refugees’ plight

November 23, 2021

LAHORE: The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) urged the government to immediately address the Afghan refugees’ plight in the country, which, in the absence of any comprehensive policy framework or legislation, has been sidelined.

In an open letter to President Dr Arif Alvi and Interior Minister Sh Rashid, the HRCP said, “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 restore balance in such a precarious situation”.

HRCP recommended that the state take the following practical steps towards tackling what could potentially become a full-blown humanitarian crisis. Develop a transparent, human rights-centric policy. 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 on the whole, in consultation with civil society organisations, must develop a substantial policy to address the matter in a way that upholds human rights and humanitarian law. This policy must be announced in Parliament to allow for much-needed discussion and debate before it is implemented. Hear from Afghan representatives and refugees. 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 money from refugees, 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.

Honour agreements, protocols and Pakistan’s own precedent. 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.

Take action to speed up resettlement of refugees. Afghan citizens were recently allowed to obtain permission letters or cards from the interior ministry in Islamabad while in Afghanistan, which is impractical. HRCP urged the government to hasten the paperwork needed to secure safe transit and visas for asylum seekers.