Pakistan slammed in HRW report for forcing Afghan refugees to return home
In this photograph taken on January 18, 2017, Afghan children warm themselves with a blanket inside a mud house at a refugee camp on the outskirts of Laghman. (AFP/Noorullah Shirzada)
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Police abuse, combined with deportation threats, compelled more than 600,000 Afghan refugees to leave Pakistan and return home last year, Human Rights Watch said in a report published on Monday.
Pakistan ramped up "a concerted campaign," to drive Afghans out of the country last year in response to several security incidents as relations between both countries deteriorated, the watchdog reported. The country insisted that many attacks in the country had links to Afghanistan.
Pakistan has been safe haven for decades for more than 2 million Afghan refugees - registered and undocumented - fleeing war in Afghanistan.
"A toxic combination of deportation threats and police abuses," forced more than 600,000 Afghan refugees in Pakistan to return home in 2016, making it difficult for the country to cope, esepcially in light of the high number of people internally displaced because of fighting within Afghanistan.
Afghan returnees interviewed by HRW told of: daily police extortion; arbitrary detention; police raids on Afghan homes; increasingly unstable legal status; the exclusion of Afghan children from Pakistani schools; and the shutting down of Afghan refugee schools.
“No matter who you are, your heart will turn black with so much abuse,” an Afghan refugee told HRW in November while returning to Afghanistan.
The government of Pakistan recently extended legal stay for Afghans from March 31 to the end of 2017.
The agency called on Pakistan to allow registered Afghan refugees to stay until it is safe for them to return home and "provide a comparable blanket protection against forced return."
HRW also blamed the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) for not voicing concern about the forced repatriations.
Despite the fact that UNHCR doubled cash support for each refugee from 200 dollars to 400 dollars, the fact that the agency has not spoken up "effectively promoted the repatriation of Afghan refugees."
The watchdog said UNHCR should "make clear that any support it might give to returning Afghan refugees in 2017 is driven by the humanitarian aim to minimize suffering resulting from sudden forced return and is not to be viewed as support for the Pakistani position.
“UNHCR failed to ensure that refugees were fully informed of the conditions to which they were returning before deciding to leave. And regardless of conditions in Afghanistan, huge numbers of refugees leaving Pakistan in the second half of 2016 did not return voluntarily.
"UNHCR therefore fundamentally abrogated its refugee protection mandate by effectively supporting Pakistan’s mass refoulement, thereby making UNHCR complicit in these violations.”
The agency also advised the European Union to stop arm-twisting the Afghan government into accepting rejected asylum seekers, describing Afghanistan as "a country the EU said in late 2016 was facing an increasingly acute humanitarian crisis.”
The Afghan Refugee Ministry had earlier said that as many as 10,000 Afghans voluntarily returned last year, including 3,000 from Germany.