Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 January 2018, 09:04 GMT

Afghan Refugees in Pakistan at Risk

Publisher United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
Publication Date 1 August 2001
Citation / Document Symbol Refugee Reports, Vol. 22, No 7
Cite as United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, Afghan Refugees in Pakistan at Risk , 1 August 2001, Refugee Reports, Vol. 22, No 7, available at: [accessed 23 January 2018]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

(In July, Refugee Reports staff writer Hiram A. Ruiz completed his second site visit to Pakistan this year. He visited recently arrived refugees, "long-term" refugees in camps, and urban refugees living in Peshawar and Islamabad. He also met with Pakistan government and UN officials, representatives of donor governments, and staff of international and local nongovernmental organizations. The following article describes Ruiz's findings on the increasingly precarious situation for Afghan refugees in Pakistan.)

Since 1978, Pakistan has hosted one of the world's largest refugee populations. Some two million Afghan refugees remain there. But after receiving and hosting Afghan refugees for more than twenty years, Pakistan has firmly pulled up the welcome mat. Government officials no longer recognize newly arriving Afghans as refugees and wants most long-term refugees to return home. This change in attitude, and subsequent actions by the Pakistani authorities, have caused widespread concern among Afghan refugees and have placed thousands of refugees at risk.

Government officials say that their change in attitude has been influenced by a number of factors: 1) Pakistan's worsening economy, which they say makes it impossible for the government to continue assisting refugees; 2) dwindling international financial support for the refugees, which officials say has burdened Pakistan; 3) social problems that the Pakistan government says are caused or exacerbated by the refugees' presence; 4) the ending, in 1988, of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, which caused the flight of most "long-term" refugees between 1978 and the late 1980s; 5) the government's belief that many of the Afghans who have entered Pakistan since mid-2000 are victims of drought, not refugees. (Afghanistan is in the midst of its worst drought in 30 years. See Refugee Reports, Vol. 22, No. 1.)

Muhammad Haroon Shaukat, director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told Refugee Reports, "The poor state of our economy is well known. We are under a variety of sanctions by various countries over the nuclear issue ... . We have over $6 billion in loans that we must pay back. We are living through one of the toughest times we have ever faced. Our resources cannot stretch any farther.

Now we are at a stage where our government is no longer in a position to extend assistance to new arrivals."

Shaukat added, "Over the years, while our hospitality has continued uninterrupted, the attitude of the international community has changed. The so-called ‘donor fatigue' set in, and a sharp decline in the international community's commitment and assistance to Afghan refugees ensued."

The Pakistan government's change of attitude is already affecting recently arrived refugees, refugees living in urban centers, and the estimated 100,000 long-term residents of one of Pakistan's former "showcase" refugee camps, Nasir Bagh, near Peshawar. Some observers fear that the government's shift may eventually affect the 1.1 million long-term refugees living in other camps in Pakistan.

Pakistan's change of attitude, some observers note, should not come as a surprise. Since the mid-1990s, the international community has substantially reduced assistance to Afghan refugees. In 1995, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the World Food Program (WFP) ended food aid to most refugee camp residents, some of whom subsequently migrated to the cities. The government of Pakistan claims that the refugees who moved to the cities have taken jobs from local people and caused rents to rise significantly. In addition, many of the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working with the refugees shifted the emphasis of their programs from care and maintenance of refugees in Pakistan to facilitating repatriation and helping returnees inside Afghanistan.

According to Shaukat, "In the past ... there was international assistance. Now we are on our own, but we do not have the resources left to assist the refugees. UNHCR assistance drops all the time, yet the refugees' needs remain. We are not receiving enough assistance to sustain the refugees. If donors have donor fatigue, then we have asylum fatigue. If donors' patience with the Afghan situation has run out, then so has ours."

Major Sahibzada Mohammad Khalid, joint secretary (for refugees) in the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions, added, "There is a saying that you can look after your brother and his family for a week, a month, a year. But at some point you have to ask him to help pay for the upkeep of both families, or to leave. We are not as cold-blooded as we appear to be. It's just that we have reached our limit."

New Arrivals Not Welcome

An influx of new refugees into Pakistan began in June 2000 and accelerated rapidly in October. UNHCR estimates that more than 172,000 Afghans entered Pakistan during 2000, fleeing heavy fighting in northern Afghanistan, widespread human rights abuses committed by all parties to the conflict, and the effects of the drought that began earlier that year. Tens of thousands more entered during the first half of 2001. Most new arrivals were members of ethnic minorities, mainly Tajiks from Takhar and Parwan provinces, and Uzbeks and Turkomans from northern Afghanistan. Some of the new arrivals were also Pushtuns from areas north of Kabul.

Many of the new arrivals sought refuge at Jalozai transit center, but found little aid there. In late 2000 and early 2001, conditions at Jalozai were said to be among the worst of any refugee camp in the world. UNHCR transferred 36,000 refugees from Jalozai to Shamshatoo camp between November and December. At Shamshatoo, UNHCR provided more adequate shelter, food, medical assistance, and other basic services. The agency tried to identify other sites for new refugees, but Pakistan would not approve new sites.

Within days of the transfer to Shamshatoo, thousands of other Afghans moved into Jalozai. More than 50,000 Afghans are now living at Jalozai. In the past few months, food has been distributed regularly, sanitation facilities have been installed, and medical services have been made available. But conditions remain inadequate. The camp is overcrowded, the range of available food items is limited, and the refugees huddle under small, makeshift tents that barely protect them from the elements. According to an NGO assisting refugees in Jalozai, "Most minimal humanitarian standards are not met." As of June 2001, the NGO reported, the situation remained "dire."

Refugee Reports visited Jalozai just as a new influx was underway and interviewed refugees who had arrived at Jalozai just weeks, days, and, in one case, hours, earlier. Most new arrivals whom Refugee Reports interviewed were members of the "Arab" ethnic group from northern Afghanistan – a group not seen before in refugee camps in Pakistan. Others were Pushtuns from the Shomali Plains.

The refugees said that they left their homes in Saripul province because of the conflict and the drought. One man said, "Yes, drought and lack of water were problems, but fighting was the main problem. There had been fighting in our area for several years, but recently the front line was right near our village." Another man added that before, despite the fighting, they had enough resources to survive and rebuild. "This time," he said, "we had nothing left." Another person said that the group had run out of water and had no means by which to survive.

Most of the Afghans whom Refugee Reports met at Jalozai said that they could not return safely to Afghanistan because of ongoing conflict in their home areas or because they feared persecution. However, Refugee Reports also met a group of several men, mostly ethnic Pushtuns, who appeared to be sympathetic to the Taliban. They said that they were ready to return to Afghanistan if they could get assistance there.

A Pushtun man from Parwan province who had been at Jalozai for six months said, "We are feeling hopeless and are thinking of returning home. We would rather return than stay here and lose our dignity in this situation." He said they had fled to Pakistan because of fighting and because lack of water in their area prevented them from farming. He added, "Coming here was the biggest mistake of our lives."

In late July, the Pakistan government and UNHCR reached an agreement on terms for carrying out an official "screening" process to determine which of the camp's residents qualify as refugees and which do not. (The screening process began on August 6.) Under the agreement, UNHCR will transfer those determined to be refugees to another camp. The government will deport those determined to be drought victims or economic migrants. People who are screened out but deemed vulnerable, such as widows with children, will be permitted to remain in Pakistan and will be assisted, but on a temporary basis. Government officials believe that a majority of the new arrivals fled primarily because of the drought and expect that most will be "screened out." However, a survey carried out in June by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a U.S.-based NGO, indicated that 67 percent of Jalozai's residents "fled Afghanistan for reasons related to and/or including armed conflict or persecution."

Urban Refugees Harassed, Forcibly Returned

A significant proportion of Afghan refugees in Pakistan live in urban centers. Many migrated to the cities from refugee camps over the course of the past two decades, particularly after 1995, when general food distribution ended in the camps. Among these are many young adults who grew up in the camps and later moved to the cities in search of work or to further their education.

Some refugees settled in the cities when they first arrived in Pakistan. Among this group are many professionals and other educated Afghans, members of ethnic minorities, and single or widowed women and their families who fled Kabul after the fall of the Najibullah regime in 1992 or following the Taliban's takeover of Kabul in 1996.

Estimates of the number of Afghan refugees living in Pakistan's cities vary significantly. Currently, UNHCR estimates their number to be approximately 800,000, although other organizations have placed the number higher. Most live in Peshawar and Karachi, which have larger Afghan populations than most cities in Afghanistan. Islamabad, Quetta, Rawalpindi, Lahore, and other Pakistani cities also host tens of thousands of Afghans.

Pakistan has never wanted large numbers of Afghans living in cities. When Afghan refugees began arriving in 1978, the government of Pakistan barred UNHCR from registering or assisting refugees in the urban centers. However, urban refugees technically benefitted from the same prima facie refugee status that Pakistan accorded all Afghans on humanitarian (not UN refugee convention) grounds.

Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, the Pakistani authorities (both national and North West Frontier Province – NWFP) generally ignored the Afghan refugees in the cities. Substantial amounts of international assistance flowed into the country for refugees, while Afghan mujahedin (members of armed groups fighting against the Soviet troops that occupied Afghanistan in 1979) enjoyed international and Pakistani support. Additionally, many urban refugees were opening small businesses that helped boost the economy, particularly in Peshawar, and others provided cheap labor for Pakistani businesses.

After UNHCR and WFP terminated food aid to most camp residents in late 1995, the number of refugees migrating to the cities increased (at about the same time, new refugees from Kabul were entering Pakistan and settling in the cities). Employment became more scarce, local people's wages were driven down by the overabundance of cheap labor, and rents went up as competition for housing rose.

During the late 1990s, the Pakistani authorities became much more concerned about the number of urban refugees. Public support for the refugees also began to wane. The authorities, the media, and the general public increasingly blamed refugees for Peshawar's and other cities' growing social ills, including crime, the widespread availability of weapons, drug abuse, prostitution, and the decline in the Pakistani economy.

Once the Taliban gained control of Kabul, the Pakistani authorities began to argue, though not very forcefully, that refugees should go home, saying that most of Afghanistan was now safe and that newly arrived Afghans were not refugees but economic migrants.

Police harassment of urban refugees increased during this period, with police stopping refugees and threatening to deport those without documentation. However, refugees could generally avoid deportation or detention by paying small bribes. During periods of domestic political tension, the Pakistani authorities rounded up groups of Afghan men, but generally released them after a few days.

Urban refugees' problems increased substantially in late 2000 in the wake of the new refugee influx that brought Pakistan's tolerance for Afghan refugees to an end. The police stepped up their harassment, extortion, detention, and refoulement (forcible return) of urban refugees, particularly in Peshawar. In November, Pakistan officially closed its border with Afghanistan and began denying entry to Afghans unless they had a current Afghan passport and valid Pakistani visa – effectively barring most Afghans from legal entry. At the same time, the authorities began to insist that Afghan refugees living in urban centers also present these documents or face deportation.

While some Afghan refugees can afford to approach the Taliban's representatives in Pakistan to obtain a new passport for more than $100, most cannot, while others are afraid to do so. Many have turned to purchasing fake passports, which are readily available in the cities.

In early 2001, the government of NWFP, with the acquiescence of the national government, embarked on a policy of mass refoulement. On January 23, 2001, the governor of NWFP issued an order authorizing the police to detain and deport any Afghan not holding a valid Afghan passport and Pakistani visa, including both new arrivals and old refugees. The governor reportedly instructed each police station in Peshawar to deport a minimum of five to ten Afghan men daily.

That initiated what a recent, UN-commissioned study on the forcible return of Afghan refugees called a period of "mass harassment in cities and officially sanctioned forcible return to Afghanistan in a systematic manner." According to government statistics, the authorities rounded up and forcibly returned some 1,200 Afghan men from Peshawar between October 2000 and mid-May 2001 (most presumably after the January 23, 2001 edict).

The study found that the mass deportations are "causing panic and alarm amongst the [Afghan refugee] community." The authorities do not give men they detain and forcibly return an opportunity to notify their families. The study also found that "many are also subject to beatings while in detention."

The study added, "The government's public endorsement of mass detention has given license for police corruption." For every man whom the authorities deport, they reportedly stop or detain a number of others and demand bribes in exchange for not deporting them. Before the mass refoulement, police in Peshawar accepted bribes of only 10 to 20 rupees ($.16 to $.32). However, they now demand bribes of 200 to 300 rupees ($3 to $5).

Deportees are usually able to get back into Pakistan within hours or days of their deportation (although some have been detained by the Taliban), a process that involves bribing border guards or paying smugglers to escort them around the border posts. Consequently, many male refugees from Peshawar, especially those too poor to pay the bribes police demand, are afraid to leave their homes, even to go to their jobs. Many have lost their jobs, and their wives have had to struggle to support their families.

Refugee Reports visited several urban Afghan refugees in Peshawar who have been affected by the mass deportations. One woman, a widow with four children, said that her fifteen-year-old son had been arrested and deported twice between March and June 2001, but had been able to return both times. Despite his fear of being forcibly returned again, he continues to work selling fruit and vegetables door to door because the family depends on his income.

Another refugee who works as a guard and lives with his wife and three children in a small room behind the office he guards said that he too rarely leaves his home unless necessary. Although he has not been deported, he has been detained three times. Each time he was set free after international staff who work in the office intervened on his behalf.

Local police in Islamabad and other cities in Pakistan, emboldened by the NWFP governor's mass refoulement campaign, have also expanded their harassment of Afghan refugees to new levels. Stopping Afghans on the street, once an occasional occurrence, is now a practice that affects dozens of refugees daily. Refugees in Islamabad said that the police often confiscate or destroy their old identification documents, telling them that they are worthless because all Afghans must now have an Afghan passport and a Pakistani visa.

The refugees told Refugee Reports that the bribes police in Islamabad now demand have increased from hundreds of rupees (several dollars) to between 5,000 and 10,000 rupees (approximately $80 to $160), sums that few refugees can afford to pay. Those who cannot pay are officially charged as illegal aliens under the Foreigner Act of 1946 (amended in 1999). Most spend weeks or months in prison, usually until their families can raise the amount of money required to pay all of the bribes needed to secure the refugee's release. Few ever make it to a court hearing; those who do are invariably deported.

One of the refugees with whom Refugee Reports met in Islamabad said he was arrested in late 2000. The police put him in their car and drove toward the police station. On the way, however, the police said that they would let him go if he paid 5,000 rupees (about $80). When he could not pay, they detained him overnight and took him to the court the next day, where he was charged with being in Pakistan illegally.

The refugee said he spent three months in prison while his family and friends raised the 5,000 rupees ($80) it took to pay for a lawyer to help him and the 25,000 rupees ($400) required to bribe various police and court officials to withdraw the charges and get him released. He said that there were as many as 500 Afghans in detention in the prison on any given day.

In June, a UNHCR spokesperson said that many Afghan refugees were "living in a state of fear," and noted that "the police have been given carte blanche to arrest and detain people randomly in the street."

Abuse Leads to Death

On June 15, Pakistani police stopped a group of four Afghans – two men and two women – who had just arrived from Peshawar by bus. The group was on its way to the Islamabad airport to see off a relative who was leaving for Germany. The police ushered the men and women into separate cars, ostensibly to take them to the police station. On the way, the police asked the brothers for $150 to set them free. When the men said that they did not have the money, the police responded by beating them.

According to a June 27 press report by the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs' Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN), one of the brothers, 40-year-old Salahoddin Samadi, "was hit over the head with a bottle and thrown out of the car." The police then released the other three members of the group, after taking some 240 rupees ($8) from the women.

Samadi was taken to a hospital, where he went into a coma. He died eleven days later. IRIN quoted the doctor who performed an autopsy on the body as reporting that Samadi died of "severe brain injury as a result of blunt trauma to the head."

While Samadi lay in a coma, his friends and relatives brought charges against the policeman involved. According to the IRIN report, a senior official in the Islamabad police department said that the police officer had been dismissed, that charges had been brought against him, and that a full investigation of the incident would be launched.

However, the refugees with whom Refugee Reports met, one of whom was closely involved in helping the family press charges against the police officer who beat Samadi, said that despite the superintendent's assertions, the policeman in question had been set free and was on active duty.

On June 27, the day after Samadi's death, some 200 Afghan refugees demonstrated outside of the hospital and later at the offices of a UN agency in Islamabad. In a petition addressed to the Human Rights Office of the United Nations in Islamabad, the group said, "We, all the Afghans, in protest of the continuous inhuman treatment of Afghan refugees by the Pakistan police, request your office, as well as all the other concerned agencies, to join us in putting an end to the harassment and torture of Afghan refugees."

Long-Term Refugees in Nasir Bagh Told to Leave

Another large group feeling the effects of the Pakistani government's hardened attitude toward Afghans is the population of Nasir Bagh refugee camp, on the outskirts of Peshawar. Nasir Bagh is home to some 100,000 Afghan refugees. The majority are ethnic Pushtuns who fled to Pakistan in the late 1970s and 1980s. Others are members of minority ethnic groups and professionals and other educated Afghans from Kabul and other cities.

The Pakistani authorities have wanted the camp's refugees to vacate the site, which is owned by a Pakistani housing cooperative that plans to build there, for several years. However, the government had not begun to forcefully push Nasir Bagh's residents out of the camp until recently.

In April, the government sent notices to all of the camp's residents telling them that they must move out by June 30. However, the government did not act on the evacuation order because it was negotiating the proposal with UNHCR to screen the camp's residents (along with those at Jalozai and Shamshatoo camps) to determine if they still qualified as refugees. Nasir Bagh residents whom the government and the UNHCR "screened in" would be allowed to remain in Pakistan but would have to leave Nasir Bagh camp. The government would deport to Afghanistan those who were "screened out."

When Refugee Reports visited Nasir Bagh in June, the situation was tense. Most refugees did not want to return to Afghanistan, either because they feared for their safety or because of the drought and the ruined economy. Few wanted to move to another camp. Most of Nasir Bagh's residents have jobs or businesses in Peshawar, and if they move to a camp outside the city would be unable to keep their jobs. However, they don't have the resources to pay for housing in the city, where rents have recently risen in anticipation of an increase in demand for housing by people needing to move out of Nasir Bagh.

According to the camp's leader, Mohammad Zahin Jabarkhil, the Pakistan government treated Nasir Bagh as a "showcase" camp during the 1980s. "When we were fighting the Soviets, President Carter came here, Vice-President Bush came here. The refugees were called ‘heroes of the world.' But those times are gone now. Now the government just wants us to leave. It wants us to leave behind everything that we have built."

Jabarkhil said that 80 percent of the camp's residents do not want to return to Afghanistan because it is not safe. He said that the refugees would be willing to leave the camp, but only to go to another site in Peshawar, not to go to a camp outside the city. "Many refugees will refuse to leave," he added, "even if the government comes with bulldozers to knock down their houses."

Although the screening process did not begin until August 6, some 2,000 camp residents returned to Afghanistan during the first three weeks of July through a voluntary repatriation program sponsored by UNHCR. Reportedly, some refugees ‘volunteered' to return to Afghanistan despite their concerns about safety and their ability to survive there. Most had little information about the screening process and were told by the local authorities that they would likely be screened out and deported. The local authorities told the refugees that they would receive repatriation assistance only if they returned voluntarily, not if they were screened out and deported, so they would be better off leaving soon.

According to a July 25 report by IRIN, both government and UNHCR officials asserted that the repatriation program was fully voluntary. However, IRIN's findings suggested otherwise. The report said, "Discussion with residents revealed that many families did not know basic facts about the closing of the camp, including that a screening to determine refugee status would take place."

The IRIN report cited an interview with a Nasir Bagh refugee who was preparing to return to Afghanistan even though she worried that her children would "starve to death" there. According to IRIN, the refugee and her blind husband "said they had been told by the police that they had to go, and they were ready to leave on the next repatriation truck because they were scared about what might happen if they stayed any longer." Another refugee told IRIN, "Every day the police knock on our doors and tell us to get out. When we ask them where we should go, they say they don't care ... . We hate the tone of voice the police use with us; they might as well physically abuse us."

On July 23, IRC released a report detailing the findings of a survey carried out in Nasir Bagh camp. IRC found that many camp residents were uninformed about the planned screening process. In the report, IRC urged UNHCR to "carefully monitor its current voluntary repatriation program." IRC also urged UNHCR and the government to "conduct a more extensive information campaign within Nasir Bagh to inform families of their operations and the [screening] process they will undergo in the coming months."

IRC also expressed concern that neither the government nor UNHCR are making adequate plans to assist Nasir Bagh residents who are eventually screened in and permitted to remain in Pakistan. According to the IRC report, 80 percent of the families interviewed "don't know where they will go" when they leave Nasir Bagh. "If alternative shelter is not found for those who stay in Peshawar, there could be a major crisis in the city," the report said.

On July 27, the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) wrote to the Pakistani government to express concern over reports that refugees at Nasir Bagh were being pressured to repatriate. USCR urged the government to "ensure that all Nasir Bagh residents are fully informed about the impending screening process and its implications" and to "investigate reports that local authorities may be pressuring Nasir Bagh residents who are not fully informed about the screening and its implications to return to Afghanistan before the screening." USCR added, "Should an investigation conclude that the local authorities are exerting such pressure on Nasir Bagh's frightened and confused residents, we appeal to your government to ensure that such actions cease immediately. "

Long-Term Refugees in Rural Camps Also Concerned

Refugee Reports visited long-term refugees at a camp near Hangu, some two hours from Peshawar. There are 12 camps in the area, with a total population of some 134,000 refugees. The camps housed more than 200,000 people in the 1980s. Over the years, about 70,000 have repatriated to Afghanistan, mostly between 1992 and 1998. Others left the camp after food aid ended in 1995.

Most of the camps' residents are ethnic Pushtuns from areas of Afghanistan that are no longer engaged in conflict. However, the drought makes return impossible at this time. The head of an Afghan-run NGO told Refugee Reports, "Two years ago it was possible to discuss repatriation, but for the past two years it has been unrealistic. You can't repatriate people when there's no water for them."

The Hangu refugees know about the government's plans to screen refugees in some camps, and believe that the government is more serious now than ever about trying to get them and the other refugees to leave. They think that the government believes the refugees harm the economy and that it "wants to show support for the Taliban by saying that it is safe for people to go back there."

The refugees reject both positions. One refugee leader said, "I think the refugees have helped the Pakistani economy. Many have businesses, they pay taxes, invest in Pakistan, and have money deposited in Pakistani banks." They also assert that it is not safe to return to Afghanistan. "If we returned, we would be forced to fight in the conflict by one side or the other," another man said.

Asked what they would do if the government insisted they return, the refugee leader said, "If they seriously forced us to go, we would return, despite the problems at home. If we are not seriously forced, we will stay here."

If forced to return, the refugees believe that they will not be able to survive unless they receive assistance for a period of one or two years, until the drought subsides and they can begin farming and sustaining themselves. They do not anticipate such help being provided, however. A third refugee added, "In the past, people have been promised help if they return, but that help didn't materialize, and they had to come back to Pakistan."

SOURCE: Refugee Reports, Vol. 22, No 7 (2001)

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