At a roundtable organized by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and South Asian Partnership – Pakistan (SAP-PK) earlier today, panelists called on the government to formulate, as a matter of priority, a coherent policy for assisting Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban-led dispensation in Afghanistan, where reports of human rights violations have escalated steadily since the far right militant group seized power in mid-August.
SAP-PK executive director Muhammad Tahseen said that the absence of such a policy meant that poorer, more vulnerable Afghans were being sidelined arbitrarily in favour of better-connected Afghans when attempting to cross the border into Pakistan to seek asylum or visas to third countries. HRCP chairperson Hina Jilani pointed out that developments in Afghanistan had serious implications for civil society in Pakistan and that ‘secret briefings’ on the issue were unacceptable. While respecting Afghan sovereignty was indeed important, she said, this should not keep civil society in Pakistan from speaking up against human rights violations in Afghanistan.
Former senator and HRCP Council member Farhatullah Babar emphasized the need to develop a human rights-centric policy with respect to Afghan refugees. Not only should this be taken forward by the Parliamentary Committee of the Whole, but Pakistani civil society should also be involved in developing such a policy. The Cabinet’s 2017 decision to adopt a national policy on the management of Afghan refugees and nationals in Pakistan, he added, should be revived.
Former senator and former HRCP chairperson Afrasiab Khattak said it was critical to hear from Afghan refugees themselves. Cumbersome documentation requirements and reports that the authorities were extorting refugees for money at the border were cause for grave concern. It was essential, he added, that Pakistan accede to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol and pass national legislation in light of these obligations.
Other participants, including development practitioner Saba Khattak, HRCP member Fatima Atif, and UNHCR spokesperson Qaiser Khan Afridi among others, recommended that Pakistan honour its precedent of accepting Afghan refugees, while calling on the Ministry of the Interior and foreign embassies to hasten the paperwork needed to secure safe transit and onward visas for asylum seekers. The government must also take immediate steps to ensure that refugees have unhindered access to healthcare and employment. In addition, they said, civil society should be entitled to assist Afghan refugees to whatever extent possible without fear of harassment by the Pakistani authorities.