U.N. ‘complicit’ in mass forced return of Afghan refugees, watch group says

Afghan refugees residing in Islamabad (Credit: Hashoo Foundation USA / Flickr)

Just last week, refugee groups commended Pakistan’s decision to extend the legal stay of Afghan refugees within its borders from March 31, 2017, until the end of December. Now, Pakistan is under fire from Human Rights Watch (HRW) for “the world’s largest unlawful mass forced return of refugees in recent times,” and the U.N. refugee agency is “complicit,” the group said in a report Monday.

“Pakistani authorities have carried out a campaign of abuses and threats to drive out nearly 600,000 Afghans since July 2016,” the report said. Of those, 365,000 are registered refugees. Some have lived in Pakistan for up to 30 years, and thousands were born and raised there.

Although the returnees are all processed as “voluntary repatriation,” the report alleges that Pakistan, in the name of national security, is forcing out Afghans through unbearable treatment and living conditions. These include increasing public threats of deportation, unwarranted detentions, police extortion of their meager incomes and belongings and exclusion of their children from education.

“It’s unlawful for Pakistan to force refugees home against their will, and that includes making their life so difficult that they feel they have no choice but to leave,” Gerry Simpson, senior researcher for HRW’s refugee rights program, said in a video.

The report is based on 115 interviews in Pakistan and Afghanistan with refugees, undocumented Afghans and returnees and corroborated by U.N. reports that detail their reasons for return.

The recent surge in returns from Pakistan has not gone unnoticed or undocumented. Refugee groups are working to ease the transition for returnees – thousands of whom are now internally displaced – and are pushing for long-term solutions.

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“Without a doubt, the Pakistan government has been a generous host of Afghan refugees for many years, providing them a place of safety and sanctuary. This is an undisputed fact. However, the Pakistan government must understand that the security situation in Afghanistan is precarious at best and people should not be forced to return until they are ready,” Julia Mayerhofer, deputy secretary-general of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, said in press release on Friday after the December 2017 extension was announced.

However, Human Rights Watch has now placed the burden of responsibility not just on the Pakistan government, but on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as well. According to the report, the agency is complicit in Pakistan’s violation of refugee rights by not condemning the situation as refoulement – the forcible return of someone to a country where they face the “real risk of persecution, torture or other ill-treatment, or a threat to life.”

Additionally, the report accuses UNHCR of failing to provide refugees with “complete, accurate, and up-to-date information on conditions in Afghanistan” and encouraging returns to Afghanistan with a June 2016 decision to double its cash support from $200 to $400 per returnee.

Although, UNHCR suspended its cash support in November with the onset of winter, saying that funds had run out, the agency announced in January that it plans to resume the program in March if donors commit enough funds.

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“UNHCR strongly refutes the claim that increasing the cash grant constituted promotion of return,” the agency wrote Human Rights Watch on Jan. 27, according to the report. However, UNHCR said it would reassess whether the cash support had become a “pull factor.”

“UNHCR does not promote refugee returns to Afghanistan given the enduring conflict in different parts of the country and its limited absorption capacity,” UNHCR spokeswoman Ariane Rummery said at a press briefing earlier this month. “However, it is our clear mandate to help those who decide to return.”

Still, the U.N. Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary-General Farhan Haq stopped short of calling Pakistan’s return of Afghan refugee refoulement when asked by reporters in a press briefing yesterday.

“First of all, we do appreciate the hospitality that Pakistan has given to over a million undocumented Afghans for decades. That’s been crucial,” Haq said. “At the same time, the ongoing negative rhetoric, stigmatism and labeling of the Afghan population in Pakistan and how this is adversely increasing their vulnerability, safety, and security in Pakistan is of concern. … And we believe that Pakistan must uphold their obligations under international laws, including the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, which was signed in 2016.”

Despite the new deadline for Afghan refugees to leave Pakistan by Dec. 31, 2017, or be deported, Human Rights Watch and other refugee groups are calling for a longer extension to avoid mass deportations in the middle of winter and to allow refugees and Afghanistan more time to prepare for repatriation.

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.