The latest: In more grim news for Afghan refugees, Pakistan has now set a deadline for Afghans without legal documentation to leave the country by December 31, 2022, or they will be fined or imprisoned. However, in a double whammy for the Afghans, the situation and process to get the legal registration or leave is a complicated one.
- Afghan refugees in Pakistan have received warnings from the government of Pakistan that if they stay in the country beyond the specified period with no legal residence permit either from the host country or the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), they will face serious consequences.
- Over the past months, this is the second time the government of Pakistan is warning foreign nationals, Afghan immigrants, in particular, to extend their stay visas and other legal documents, or else they will have to pay fines to leave the country.
- Meanwhile, extending a stay visa has become extremely difficult for Afghan nationals within Pakistan. The online processing time is overwhelmingly time-consuming with no transparency in the process.
- Situation is not so simple for Afghan refugees. Most of them who have applied for visa extension have been waiting for more than a year. The process to obtain the extension is riddled with corruption and commissions, refugees claim. Many fear raising their voice against such a system for fear of reprisal by the Pakistan police who are known to treat them badly.
- Meanwhile, some refugees who have received a new stay visa are required to have the entry and exit stamps of both Pakistan and Afghanistan in their passports in order to have a validated visa. Here too, they face problems as when they approach Taliban forces, they are detained, interrogated and then released after several hours.
- Furthermore, UNHCR Pakistan has stopped issuing ‘Asylum Seeker Certificates’ and ‘Refugee Cards’ to those Afghan refugees already registered with this organization since the Taliban’s return to power, and the refugee influx to Pakistan, due to some unknown reasons. This puts massive pressure on Afghan migrants living in the country with no legal status.
- Many of the new arrivals have remained in Pakistan because of delays in getting visas to Western nations. Most have said they cannot afford the hundreds of dollars needed to renew their Pakistani visas.
- In late November, the Pakistan Minister for States and Frontier Regions, Talha Mahmood, had announced a registration drive for unregistered Afghan refugees in the country. The move was said to ensure the compilation of complete data of registered and unregistered Afghan refugees as well as those who have gone back to Afghanistan. But, not much has come off from this front as well.
Why it matters? Treatment of Afghan refugees in Pakistan has always been under the scanner. From arbitrary arrests to ill-treatment and bad behaviour meted out to these refugees by Pakistani officials have made headlines. Taliban authorities have also come on record urging Islamabad to ensure that they are not treated badly.
- Although the UN International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that there are now 1.3 million Afghan immigrants living in Pakistan lawfully, it is also believed that hundreds of thousands of Afghan immigrants are also residing there irregularly.
- Islamabad has said some 250,000 Afghans have entered Pakistan since January 2021, most of them arriving after the Taliban takeover in August 2021. Most of them are educated professionals looking to resettle in another country.
- Former government workers, rights campaigners, and journalists have expressed fears of Taliban persecution. Others have said they wish to escape the Taliban’s hard-line rule. The economic freefall has shuttered businesses and left scant options for alternative livelihoods. And the dire health-care situation has forced many Afghans to look abroad to Pakistan for medical treatment.
Zoom out: With such conditions galore, these refugees who already face an under certain future are faced with bad predicaments. They have no source of stable income, no way to provide for a family and are dependent on humanitarian aid for their needs. This situation along with the forceful deadline has put Afghan refugees in a tight spot. However, Islamabad is not a signatory to international conventions on the rights of refugees. Pakistan has faced widespread accusations by Afghan refugees of harassment, ill-treatment, arbitrary detentions, and forced returns to Afghanistan.
- In fact, there have been many arrests too. Around 1,500 Afghan refugees, including women and children, had been arrested in Sindh in November.
- The authorities have said the Afghan nationals were charged with violating the Foreigners Act, a Pakistani law amended in 2016 that empowers authorities to deport foreigners lacking proper documentation. Courts can also fine or imprison foreigners for violating the law.
- On November 29, 32 undocumented Afghan refugees were released from Pakistani prisons and were deported to Afghanistan.
- Last week, the Taliban embassy in Islamabad announced that as a result of the efforts made by their consulate, more than 300 migrants have been released from Pakistan’s prisons.