- Imran Khan Laghari
Unlike other refugee receiving countries of the world, Pakistan has been host to one of the largest population of refugees since three decades, the majority of whom originate from Afghanistan. Pakistan is home to 1.6 six million registered and 1.4 million unregistered refugees. Government of Pakistan warmly welcomed millions of Afghan refugees upon their arrival in the country. Not only government but also people of Pakistan initially welcomed Afghan refugees due to their shared cultural and religious heritage, and considered it their duty to help and host these refugees. In Pakistan, refugees have access to basic services (health, education and shelter), freedom of movement and liberty to earn livelihood in non-signatory country. Refugees have received numerous supports from different institutions of government. Registered refugees are having proof of residence card to access the basic services and movement.
Between 1979 and 1997, UNHCR spent more than USD 1 billion on refugees in Pakistan. In addition to this, large amounts of ‘unofficial aid’ were given to refugee camps. But after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from the region in 1989, the West lost interest and aid sharply decreased. This prompted a change in attitude from the Pakistan government; it became eager to rid itself of the ‘burden’ of these refugees and began strongly encouraging them to repatriate.
As of 2011, UNHCR had registered 1.7 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, but there are still an estimated 1.3 million unregistered refugees, bringing the total number of refugees to nearly 3 million. Approximately 85 per cent of the refugees are Pashtuns, while the remaining are Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, and other ethnic groups. Forty per cent of refugees live in camps or refugee villages, while the remainder lives dispersed in urban/rural areas.
Refugees received warm reception in Pakistan. Government of Pakistan has opened borders for refugees during the major influxes of Afghan refugees that were during the Soviet war in 1979 and United States’ War on terror in 2001. Government has established numerous camps for Afghan refugees along the border and even provided food assistance to the Afghan refugees without the support of United Nations.
Assistance for Refugees
At first instance government of Pakistan provided support to Afghan refugees. Later, with support UNHCR government issued Roshan Cards (passbooks) to Afghan refugees. Through these passbooks refugees could access to food assistance, healthcare and education. Besides, government helped UNHCR in voluntary repatriation.
The Government of Pakistan (GoP) has a quadripartite agreement with Afghanistan, UNHCR and Iran and is once again actively encouraging and facilitating ‘voluntary return.’ The 1951 UN Convention requires that repatriation must be voluntary in every sense. Refugees must not be threatened or coerced. They may return unconditionally and spontaneously, and may do so at their own pace. They must not be arbitrarily separated from family members and they are entitled to be treated with full respect and acceptance by citizens of their host and home country, including the full restoration of their rights. They must be able to return in safety and with dignity under conditions of legal safety, physical security and material security.
In March 2010, the government of Pakistan adopted a strategy for Afghan refugees called the Management and Repatriation Strategy of Afghan Refugees(AMRS) in Pakistan 2010-2012. The key objective of this strategy was the voluntary repatriation of all Afghans. This mass repatriation, which was facilitated by UNHCR starting in 2002, was one of the most rapidly organized voluntary repatriation movements in history. Till date, approximately 3.5 million people have returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan alone. UNHCR and the international community alike, calling it a ‘remarkable operation’ that, provided a ‘solution to what seemed an intractable refugee situation’, have praised the movement.
However, many refugees who returned have found it difficult to survive and integrate in their ‘homeland’, as some have never lived there before, and many have been forced to consider seeking refuge once again, either in another part of the country or by crossing an international border. Further, the security situation has steadily deteriorated in Afghanistan due to continued fighting between local and regional elites. There has been a resurgence of Taliban forces targeting aid personnel. Approximately 60 per cent of the country has been designated insecure. There have been some repatriated Afghan refugees, who have claimed to have been forced to return through threatening or coercive means.
The Government of Pakistan, with the support of UNHCR started registration process of refugees in 2005. This process was officially completed in 2007. Under it more than a million refugees received identity cards, named as Proof of Residence Card (POR Card) after registration. Refugees having POR card can access health care, education and earn livelihood. Refugees holding POR card have freedom of movement. The refugee card is a crucial document that enables Afghans to legally remain in Pakistan and thereby provides protection against risks such as harassment, extortion, arbitrary arrest and illegal detention as well as deportation under Pakistan's Foreigner's Act.
The Government’s plan to issue more than a million such cards this year is welcome as it will provide 330,000 Afghan children below the age of eighteen, birth certificates for the first time (allowing them access social services and basic rights – such as school enrolment, and allows or the issuance of documentation). This becomes an important protection for refugee children as it helps to prevents statelessness, makes it easy for children.
However, the Government of Pakistan has also announced that after 30 December 2015, there will be no further extension of POR cards for Afghan refugees. It is now considering cancelling the refugee status of all remaining Afghan refugees, a move which is receiving considerable international attention and could cause up to 3 million refugees – the world’s largest single cluster – to lose state protection and face the possibility of expulsion. Cancellation of these cards will be a big blow. It highlights the intention of the Government of Pakistan of removing unregistered refugees to Afghanistan as well. These are Afghans who have been left out of the registration process due to the absence of a male family member, bribery of government or NGO workers, and fear of registration due to a lack of proper information.
Thus in the absence of a formal refugee protection regime in Pakistan, under international and national law, refugees continue facing numerous protection issues in the country. These protection issues are increase in harassment, intimidation, physical torture, arrest, illegal detention, deportation and limited freedom of movement. There is very limited access to refugees’ settlements and vice versa due to security situation in the country. On the other hand their stay is perceived in the context economic migration and terrorism both by government of Pakistan and locals. This situation continues to make the life of refugees difficult.
“Pakistan begins issuing new cards to 1.6 million refugees”, UNHCR Briefing Notes, http://www.unhcr.org/530c76849.html