Refugees from Afghanistan deserve better

Time has run out for a group of nearly two million refugees, the victims of decades of conflict and upheaval, who now face further displacement after being held collectively responsible for the violence perpetrated by a militant minority.

A deadline for an estimated 1.7 million undocumented Afghans to leave neighbouring Pakistan expires today, having already instilled fear among a group of people who have called the country home for years after fleeing a string of conflicts in their volatile, poverty-stricken nation.

It is reported that tens of thousands of people, fearing arrest by the Pakistani authorities, have voluntarily left for Afghanistan, leading to an acute situation at border crossings where some Afghans try to get their families and belongings across. This is a situation that could well get worse over the coming days and weeks as winter approaches.

For many of these Afghans, their lives are being turned upside down for a second time. Thousands fled their homes following the 1979 Soviet invasion, which led to years of fighting with the Afghan Mujahideen. This was eventually followed by the rise of the Taliban and then a 20-year war between US-led forces backing the post-2001 Kabul government and the militants, who returned to power two years ago, after the withdrawal of the US and allied troops.

Pakistan is a country facing significant economic, political and security challenges, not least the violence being perpetrated by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan whose attacks have claimed thousands of civilian and military lives. These attacks include the horrific Army Public School massacre that took place in Peshawar in December 2014 – an event that also led to the subsequent deportation of many Afghans.

Speaking to The National earlier this month, Rustam Mohmand, a political analyst and Pakistan’s former ambassador to Afghanistan, said Afghans should not be associated with ISIS or the TTP. The vast majority of Afghan refugees have lived in Pakistan for decades and have not been involved in terrorism, he said.

“They are asylum seekers and, as per the United Nations rules, they are entitled to stay in a country as refugees,” Mr Mohmand explained.

Pakistan has the right to act and preserve its stability. Although the expulsion decision made by the country’s military-dominated caretaker government is ostensibly directed at all undocumented foreigners, it will disproportionately and negatively affect the Afghan community. Those deported will face extreme hardship across the border; Afghanistan is a country in economic collapse and suffered a string of earthquakes in Herat Province in October. The UN estimates that 30 million people in the country are already in need of aid.

Pakistan is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention but on Friday the UN’s human rights organisation, the OHCHR, said it believed many of those facing deportation will be at “grave risk of human rights violations if returned to Afghanistan, including arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, cruel and other inhuman treatment”.

There are still moral obligations on Pakistan – and the Taliban-run government in Kabul – to ensure that people’s rights are respected. International humanitarian organisations have appealed to Islamabad to reconsider its decision. Time may be running out for blameless Afghans in Pakistan, but it is not too late to reconsider a process that would leave them more vulnerable than ever.

Published: November 01, 2023, 3:00 AM

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