Amnesty urges Pakistan to halt ‘deportation, detention, harassment’ of Afghan refugees


Amnesty International on Friday urged the federal government to “immediately halt the continued detentions, deportations and widespread harassment” of Afghan refugees.

From Nov 1, the government initiated a nationwide operation to deport illegal foreign nationals, the majority of whom were Afghans, after the deadline to voluntarily leave the country had expired.

Last month, the government had given an ultimatum to all undocumented immigrants to leave Pakistan by October 31 or risk imprisonment and deportation to their respective countries. The government decided to keep foreign nationals residing in the country without identity documents in “holding centres” before deporting them to their respective countries.

In a press release issued today, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for South Asia Campaigns Livia Saccardi said that thousands of Afghan refugees were being used as “political pawns” to be returned to Afghanistan where their “life and physical integrity could be at risk amidst an intensified crackdown on human rights and an ongoing humanitarian catastrophe”.

She stressed that “no one should be subjected to mass forced deportations, and Pakistan would do well to remember its international legal obligations, including the principle of non-refoulement.”

The principle of non-refoulement suggests that a person should never be expatriated to a state where he or she faces the risk of political persecution.

Saccardi said if the government did not halt the deportations immediately, “it will be denying thousands of at-risk Afghans, especially women and girls, access to safety, education, and livelihood.”

“Pakistan must fulfil its obligations under international human rights law to ensure the safety and well-being of Afghan refugees within its borders and immediately halt deportations to prevent further escalation of this crisis.

“The government, along with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, must expedite the registration of applicants seeking refuge in Pakistan, particularly women and girls, journalists, and those belonging to minority and ethnic communities as they face heightened risks,” the press release quoted her as saying.

The statement highlighted Amnesty International’s concerns regarding the “complete lack of transparency, due process, and accountability in the detentions and deportations over the last week”.

It said the situation was “exacerbated by increased incidents of harassment and hostility against Afghan refugees in Pakistan”, adding that many incidents of harassment were reported during which at least 12 people with valid Afghan citizen cards were detained on Nov 1 in Nishtar Colony and Garden Town Police Stations of Lahore without any first information report lodged against them.

“On Oct 24, Afghan traders in Akbari Mandi in Lahore were searched for documentation by individuals in plain clothes claiming to be police officials who confiscated Rs500,000 in cash,” the press release said.

Amnesty also raised issues about the holding centres, saying they were not constructed under any specific law and were being run parallel to the legal system.

“Amnesty International has verified that in at least seven detention centres, no legal rights are extended to detainees such as the right to a lawyer or communication with family members. Such centers are in violation of right to liberty and a fair trial. Also, no information is made public, making it hard for families to trace their loved ones,” the human rights watchdog claimed.

It further said that it had “confirmed with journalists across Pakistan that the media was not given access to these centres”, adding that this raised questions of transparency.

Plight of Afghan refugees

The statement quoted an Afghan refugee as saying: “We live in constant anxiety. There is a sense of fear among the Afghan community. We lock our doors as soon as we hear any police cars in the area.”

The press release said he was detained for more than four hours in an Islamabad holding centre on Nov 3, adding that there were hardly any translators who could communicate in Dari or Pashto.

It also narrated the plight of an Afghan journalist who has been hiding in Pakistan since the Taliban takeover in 2021. “Even though I entered Pakistan on a valid visa and have applied for renewal, I do not have anything to show the authorities if they turn up at my doorstep. I have stopped sending my children to school for the past two weeks.

“I am on several lists maintained by the Taliban and I am certain I will be killed if I go back,” the journalist said.

The statement shed light on Afghan refugees who were part of religious minorities and faced “intersectional challenges amid deportations with the double threat of persecution upon their return”.

“An activist working with Christian refugee communities in Islamabad, Chaman, and Quetta, shared that a shelter housing a dozen Christian refugee families was forced to shut down after police raids,” the press release