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November 19, 2023

In a game of substitution, the consequences could be serious

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everal individual stories have come to the surface in the backdrop of photos showing trucks brimming with puzzled-looking people clutching their belongings. Over the past few weeks, the government has given several reasons for asking undocumented Afghans to leave or be deported.

It has been suggested that there is a reason why every stolen iPhone ends up in Jalalabad, not to mention the Taliban attacks on civilians. Caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar-ul Haq Kakar, among others, has said Pakistan has a right to prioritise the security and welfare of its people.

Agencies like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees are not happy. The Human Rights Watch has called the decision a breach of customary international law. While Pakistan is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention of 1951, it is a party to the UN Convention Against Torture. Some have cited the principle of non-refoulment from international customary law in this debate. According to the OCHCR, this rule guarantees that “no one should be returned to a country where they would face torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and other irreparable harm.”

Last week, the Lahore University of Management Sciences organised a conference on citizenship and rights of Afghan refugees. Besides scholars, the panel consisted of a politician and a grassroots activist. The different voices made for an insightful discourse, bringing core issues about deportation to the forefront.

Muzammil Kakar, a former chairman of the Pashtoon Education Street movement, said that even though Pakistan had housed 4 million Afghan refugees over the past 40-50 years, their misery had been constant.

He said registration cards and bank accounts of more than 8,000 people residing in Lahore had been blocked after the voluntary return deadline passed. He said the refugees also faced social sanction in various sectors. Kakar said that police had picked up three labourers in Lahore. He said they had been released after paying Rs 6,000 each. He said the undocumented Afghans had to pay more for many services including things like travel and education.

Afrasaib Khatak, a senior leader of the National Democratic Movement, said that being deprived of the prospect of any education by being sent back to their home country was a particularly daunting situation for Afghan girls. He said that about 1.7 million refugees were undocumented, more than half of them were women and children. He said the gendered impact of the deportation was not being widely discussed, but for these women, the future held little more than religious coercion and social sanctions.

Earlier on October 3, Interior Minister Sarfaraz Bugti had announced, “We have given them a deadline of November 1 to return to their countries. If they don’t, law enforcement agencies of the state will deport them.”

The caretaker government has announced stringent measures to be taken against those sheltering the undocumented aliens. Police have been sending any refugee they can get their hands on to the transit centres from where the government is supposed to send them across the border.

Questioned about the refugees’ involvement in crimes, Kakar said that there was no empirical evidence that refugees participated more in crime than Pakistani citizens. He said an informed analysis of the crime rate and perpetrators in the past decades could be helpful in this regard.

Some arguments about Pakistan’s economic and social problems are not without merit. Overpopulation is at the heart of the country’s struggles, from the balance of payments crisis to dependency on loans from institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The fifth most populous country in the world struggles to provide basic health and sanitation facilities to many of its citizens. Against that backdrop, deporting undocumented refugees may sound appealing. However, they constitute only about 0.6 per cent of the population.

Those who complain that tending to the refugees is a drain on national resources, appear to be ignoring two things. First, the assistance that the country gets in the name of refugees. Second, the economic contribution of the refugees, especially in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It was pointed out that many of them are gainfully employed.

The forced deportation is likely to aggravate the already tense relations with Afghanistan and could end up providing fodder to the terrorist organisations.

The writer works for the LUMS Law Journal and writes about public policy, development and literature. 

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