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Pakistan: Afghan refugees harassed, jailed and forced to pay bribes - new testimonies

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Afghan refugees raise serious concerns at pattern of harassment by Pakistani authorities

Our lives in Pakistan are no lives at all’ - Hussain, former employee of the Ministry of the Interior in Afghanistan

Deeply flawed relocation schemes with lack of safe and legal routes for Afghans to reach the UK and other countries

‘The so-called resettlement scheme for Afghans remains a mirage’ - Steve Valdez-Symonds

The Pakistani authorities must urgently stop harassing and arbitrarily arresting Afghan refugees and asylum-seekers, many of whom have fled persecution by the Taliban, Amnesty International said today as it marks World Refugee Day (20 June).

Since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, many Afghans who feared Taliban persecution have fled to Pakistan where they have been subjected to waves of arrests, arbitrary detentions and the threat of deportation. Due to considerable delays in the registration process, most Afghans do not hold “proof of registration” cards - the identity document entitling Afghan refugees to remain in Pakistan and many now have expired visas.

Amnesty recently spoke to nine Afghans, including six who had been detained in Pakistan over the course of the last three months, as well as conducting interviews with Afghan refugees in Pakistan last year.

Those who talked to Amnesty said they were unable to complain publicly about their situation because of their precarious legal status, with the situation being particularly difficult for women and girls who face discrimination in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Afghans who have sought asylum have also had to endure a prolonged process when trying to obtain proof of registration from the UN Refugee Agency. Combined with lengthy visa renewals from the Pakistani government, these delays have allowed some Pakistani police officials to harass them and for other authorities to extort money from them - practices that have been reported across the country, including in Sindh, Karachi, Peshawar, Chaman and Quetta, among others (see below for more details).

Countries that offered special relocation schemes to Afghan individuals facing persecution by the Taliban, including the UK (see below for more on the UK), USA, Canada, and Germany are currently not issuing visas within Afghanistan, where they do not have a diplomatic presence. At the same time, the process for issuing them in Pakistan remains complicated and lengthy with a waiting time of many months.

Dinushika Dissanayake, Amnesty International’s South Asia Deputy Director, said:

“The situation of Afghan refugees in Pakistan is deeply concerning. Being unable to return home or stay permanently in Pakistan, they are caught in an impossible situation from which there is no escape. Their ambiguous legal status and arduous processes for asylum or third country relocation have made them even more vulnerable.

“Afghans seeking asylum were first punished by the Taliban - and now by arduous registration, asylum and visa processes. The international community has failed to provide adequate protection to those fleeing persecution in Afghanistan, in sharp contrast to the initial promises made.

“We are calling on the UNHCR to expedite registration and reviews of applications from Afghans seeking refugee status in Pakistan, and the Government of Pakistan must stop arbitrarily arresting and harassing Afghan refugees.”

Afghan refugees threatened and harassed

Hussain,* a former employee of the Ministry of the Interior in Afghanistan fled to Pakistan with his family last year after narrowly escaping the Taliban in Kabul. He was recently detained amid a round of arrests and faced harassment by the Pakistani authorities. In February, police raided and ransacked Hussain’s home in Islamabad, as well as the homes of several other Afghan families in his neighbourhood. He says he was handcuffed and brought to the police station at about 10pm, where he and around 20 other Afghans were interrogated about their immigration status, employment and social circles.

Hussain said:

“They took our passports and wallets from us, and then searched our bodies multiple times. They detained even those of us that had valid visas and were in the country legally. Our lives in Pakistan are no lives at all.”

The next morning, Hussain was released after paying a “fine” of 30,000 rupees equivalent to £81, yet the police refused to give him any documentation outlining the reason for his detention or a receipt for the fine. Five other detained Afghans interviewed by Amnesty shared similar accounts of incidents in which they were all forced to pay extortion-like fines.

These cases represent just a small number of the many Afghans who have arrived seeking asylum in Pakistan with the ultimate aim of building a new life in the country or relocating to a third country via Pakistan. The threats and harassment they have suffered have been amplified amid delays of the third-country relocation processes and expired visas, since it makes them legally vulnerable.

Bribes demanded by authorities

Afghans without documents to prove their legal status are unable to secure formal employment and often end up working in low-wage jobs where they are vulnerable to exploitation. Without a proof of registration card or visa, it is also difficult for them to get SIM cards or set up bank accounts, thus preventing Afghans from receiving money from relatives. Landlords also take advantage of their lack of proof of regular status.

Referring to proof of registration cards, Hussain said:

“If you don’t have a card, then you can’t get a legal housing lease, so instead we must pay a bribe to a broker.

Many of the recent arrivals must travel to the Afghanistan/Pakistan border and officially leave Pakistan in order to renew their visas, which can prove both costly and dangerous. Two interviewees said border guards had demanded bribes before allowing them to cross the border, even though they possessed valid visas.

The Pakistani authorities often rely on the Foreigners Act 1946 to detain Afghans in the country even when they have valid documents. Despite contacting human rights groups in Pakistan, recently-detained Afghan refugees said they were provided with no legal protections while in police custody. In addition, Afghans have often struggled to access healthcare and education for their children, with some schools refusing to enrol them due to ambiguities surrounding their legal status. For women and girls, it is especially difficult to enrol in schools in Pakistan due to gender discrimination.

Ahmad,* another asylum-seeker interviewed by Amnesty, contacted the UNHCR in Pakistan seeking proof of registration in November 2021. He was asked to submit his biometric details in August 2022. Ten months later, he is yet to receive his official registration card. For Ahmad, Hussain and other Afghan refugees in Pakistan who worked for the former Afghan government or worked in civil society, returning to Afghanistan is impossible.

Bureaucratic hurdles

The UN Refugee Agency - UNHCR - is responsible for registering Afghans seeking asylum, providing them with proof of registration cards and determining whether they are refugees. The UN agency has contracted the Society for Human Rights and Prisoners' Aid (SHARP) for this registration process, yet those interviewed told Amnesty they have faced long waiting times at the SHARP office when seeking to schedule an interview, and sluggish responses to calls, making it virtually impossible for recently arrived Afghans to receive legal documentation quickly.

Due to the risk of persecution, the UNHCR issued a “non-return advisory” for Afghans outside of their home country following the Taliban takeover. According to the agency, there are more than 3.7 million Afghans in Pakistan, soe of who fled Afghanistan for both economic as well mas and political reasons. Only 1.4 million of them are formally registered.

UK’s flawed response to Afghan refugees

The UK government’s offer of assistance to endangered Afghans is “grossly flawed and utterly inadequate”. For example, from 1 March to 24 May this year, only two Afghans have been received by the UK under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) scheme, and by 25 May only 54 Afghans were confirmed as having been granted leave to come to the UK under the Afghanistan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) scheme (excluding people evacuated in August 2021).

In August 2021, the UK announced a resettlement scheme for Afghans at high risk of persecution - such as women human rights defenders and LGBT+ people - but nearly two years later, the Government is yet to make this scheme operational in any significant way after the immediate evacuation of people in August 2021. And even people who have arrived under that evacuation have been left in limbo with little support in hotels and hostels across the country, waiting for the Home Office to grant them indefinite leave to remain.

Meanwhile, UK ministers are currently seeking to introduce draconian new measures as part of its current immigration bill which will come close to shutting down the UK’s entire asylum system. The risks for Afghans include:

  • No functioning safe and legal route for those fleeing persecution
  • A permanent bar on receiving asylum in the UK on or after 7 March 2023
  • Indefinite detention or limbo (in hotels, on barges or former military barracks) without permission to work or other social opportunities pending expulsion to Rwanda or some other country if seeking asylum in the UK on or after 7 March 2023

Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s Refugee and Migrant Rights Director, said:

“The so-called resettlement scheme for Afghans remains a mirage - the Government’s offer of protection is grossly flawed and utterly inadequate.

“Many people still stranded in Afghanistan are under immense risk of persecution and many in neighbouring countries are suffering serious abuses, including the threat of being returned to persecution in that country.  

“Of those Afghans who’ve been brought to safety in Britain, many remain stuck in hotels, often with little or no support, and they are now at risk of becoming homeless.

“The UK government’s existing schemes to support Afghan refugees are plainly insufficient and with the draconian immigration bill currently being pushed through Parliament it’s clear ministers real intent is to shirk rather than share responsibility to provide a place of safety to Afghans in need.

“The Government’s bill is going to make many traumatised and isolated people even more vulnerable and set a terrible example for other countries who may similarly attempt to shut the door to people seeking asylum.”

Note: Amnesty changed the names of all those interviewed to protect their identity. On 14 June, Amnesty contacted the Government of Pakistan, UNHCR and SHARP about its findings, but had not received a response at the time of publication.

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