CIVICUS speaks about the current move to expel undocumented migrants from Pakistan with Muhammad Mudassar, Chief Executive Officer of the Society for Human Rights and Prisoners’ Aid (SHARP-Pakistan).
Founded in 1999, SHARP is a human rights civil society organisation working for the rights and wellbeing of vulnerable groups, including refugees and internally displaced persons, and working on issues related to trafficking in persons and smuggling of migrants, including through advocacy at national and international level, capacity development of stakeholders, community services and emergency response.
What’s the situation of Afghan refugees in Pakistan?
Pakistan has hosted one of the world’s largest refugee populations for nearly 44 years, as it started receiving Afghan refugees in the late 1970s. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there are 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees, around 840,000 of them registered between 2017 and 2018, plus around 775,000 undocumented Afghan migrants. Since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, between 400,000 and 700,000 more have arrived in Pakistan to seek asylum and protection through embassies of countries such as Canada, Germany and the USA.
But the Pakistani government hasn’t announced any policy to provide legal protection to new arrivals. In January 2022, the government barred the issuing of UNHCR asylum certificates to newly arrived Afghans, leaving them in a legal limbo. Acting on behalf of the UNHCR, SHARP has been the frontline organisation offering reception facilities.
A few weeks ago, a refugee with three or four children ate a mouse poison pill while waiting for resettlement response. Fortunately, SHARP personnel were on site and she was promptly taken to the hospital and survived. This incident reflects the despair many Afghan refugees feel. They’ve spent all their savings coming to Pakistan and waiting while the cost of living only continues to increase. They often seek jobs but there is no legal provision for undocumented Afghans to work or do business. For that they have to use false Pakistani identities, and when they need to leave the country, they’re forced to sell all their assets for next to nothing. The absence of legal protections also leaves them vulnerable to forced labour, and young women are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
Why has the Pakistani government ordered the expulsion of Afghan refugees?
The situation in Pakistan remained peaceful for many years, largely due to the cultural and religious similarities between Pakistani and Afghan people. However, in 2014, an attack on school in Peshawar resulted in the death of over 150 students and teachers. More terrorist attacks followed across Pakistan. In response, the government made a national action plan to counter such attacks and adopted a zero-tolerance border management policy. This is because terrorists were believed to be entering Pakistan across the border with Afghanistan.
Moreover, Pakistan is grappling with a difficult economic situation, including a fuel price hike and high unemployment, with political turmoil further complicating the situation.
Social media also played a role by spreading content linking Afghan refugees to terrorism, negatively affecting public attitudes towards them. Repatriation of Afghans from Pakistan reached its peak in 2015, and relationships between host and refugee communities have increasingly deteriorated, with incidents of hostility continuously increasing over the years. Tensions escalated during cricket matches, leading to fights among Pakistani and Afghan supporters.
In response, SHARP initiated community outreach sessions aimed at engaging young Afghans and Pakistanis to identify commonalities and prioritise them over differences to prevent further violence and create an environment of peaceful coexistence.
How else is SHARP working to help Afghan refugees?
We have partnered with the UNHCR for over 24 years and we operate in 14 offices with over 300 staff members in strategic locations. SHARP is the first contact point for anyone who enters Pakistan to seek asylum. Our role is to conduct a brief initial reception interview and collect documentation to put together the claims, which are reviewed and processed by the UNHCR for further interviews and the provision of protection documentation. We also provide free legal aid and assistance to refugees and migrants, psycho-social counselling and shelter services for the most vulnerable. We make referrals for medical services, emergency cash assistance and community-based protection services.
Working alongside the UNHCR, last year SHARP submitted recommendations to the government, wrote letters to the Minister of Interior and met with the National Commission on Human Rights. I visited parliament three times to advocate for a policy for incoming Afghan refugees and the enactment of a national refugee law. Our recommendations stress the importance of a dignified and respectful approach aligned with humanitarian principles and long-term planning. We’ve urged the Pakistani government to engage with the international community, including the European Union (EU), to address this crisis and ensure that Afghans return home only voluntarily and in a dignified manner.
It’s crucial to note that while Pakistan is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention, for a long time it has welcomed refugees on humanitarian grounds, treating them as friends. It shouldn’t jeopardise years of efforts by expelling them as foes. The government should establish registration centres and give people several months to come forward and register their claims for protection. As it lacks the required technical capacity and resources, it should work closely with international and civil society partners.
Is Pakistan receiving the international support it needs to tackle the situation?
The refugee crisis is a challenge for global south countries, which often lack robust legal protection and face economic difficulties. Lured by promises from third countries, asylum seekers often come to Pakistan and countries such as Bangladesh, Iran and Tajikistan and then await international assistance for resettlement. In Pakistan, hundreds approach our office daily asking for resettlement support, and we try to help, working alongside the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration.
But the strain on Pakistani security, healthcare, education and other public services has become overwhelming. If the EU or an EU country urges us to host more Afghan refugees, they should first assess how many Afghan refugees they have welcomed in recent years and consider sharing the burden through resettlement programmes. The international burden-sharing mechanism isn’t working to provide breathing space for global south countries. There should be a flexible visa regime for Afghans who are stuck here in Pakistan and waiting to reunite with their families and friends in other countries.
The situation worsened with the Ukraine crisis, because international support shifted towards addressing those humanitarian needs and the Pakistani crisis stayed largely neglected. Additionally, last year’s flash floods displaced nearly 3.4 million Pakistanis, killed around a million animals and affected numerous refugee communities. Although both the international community and the Pakistani government focused on addressing the consequences of the flood, many internally displaced people have been unable to return to their homes and are still living in camps. The ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine may further divert international attention and resources away from Pakistan.
We have already been warned that there would be huge funding cut by approximately 60 per cent in 2024, posing a significant challenge in maintaining work for humanitarian organisations with extensive operations across Pakistan. The uncertainty of survival over the coming year is a pressing concern for us. We appeal to the international community to share the responsibility of welcoming Afghan refugees and support Pakistani humanitarian organisations and the government to help asylum seekers rebuild their lives.
Civic space in Pakistan is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.