June 8, 2022
By Rehan Piracha
Over 1,700 Afghan families are holding demonstrations in Islamabad for the last two months, protesting the inhumane treatment meted out to women and children since they crossed into Pakistan following the Taliban takeover in August last year.
According to Dad Khawan, Kill Us – a group representing these Afghan families – over 6,000 to 7,000 Afghan nationals comprising women and children are sleeping in open areas across the federal capital as they hold protests seeking the attention of international community to be considered human beings.
“If the world is not ready to give us basic human rights, then they should kill us,” Ahmed Totikhel, one of the Afghan protesters who are now holding a sit-in at Silver Park near Express Chowk in Islamabad, said.
The group had earlier staged a sit-in outside the National Press Club for over a month. On June 7, the protesters tried to march into the federal capital’s Red Zone but were baton-charged by police. A number of women and children were injured during the scuffle.
“Our protest is not against the Pakistani government but an attempt to tell the international community that displaced Afghan nationals are also human beings and deserved to be given their basic rights as citizens of the free world,” Ahmed Totikhel said. “Afghan refugees are being deported in Iran, Turkey and Pakistan in complete disregard to the peril and life-threatening situation they will face in Afghanistan.”
The group mainly comprises members of the Afghan Shia Hazara community who are fleeing Afghanistan for fear of prosecution by the Taliban regime in Kabul. Many are former government servants, such as teachers and police officials in the previous Afghan regime, or worked with international aid agencies and Western embassies, while others are artistes and journalists who migrated to Pakistan when the Taliban seized power in Kabul.
“We are Afghan civilians and not terrorists that we are treated as pariahs,” Ahmed Totikhel said. He said his group was demonstrated against the inordinate delay of months in registering them as refugees in Pakistan.
“Members of our group have contacted the UNHCR Pakistan who are told they would be contacted on their listed sim contact in the next three months,” he said, pointing that Afghan nationals holding valid visas have their cell phone SIM cancelled upon expiry of their visas. “Once the SIM is cancelled, an Afghan national no longer has any contact to carry with his registration process.”
According to estimates from the Government of Pakistan, over 300,000 Afghan nationals have crossed into Pakistan since August 2021. In June, the Government with the support of the UNHCR completed the verification of some 1.3 million registered Afghan refugees residing in Pakistan – just half of the estimated 3 million Afghan refugees in the country.
Peace and security analyst Simbal Khan said the Afghans protesting in Islamabad are just one of the many categories of nationals that have fled their homeland since the Taliban takeover.
“These Afghans are mostly educated and hold valid visas or documents,” she explained. The category of undocumented Afghan refugees is estimated to be close to 1.2 million people,” she adds.
According to Simbal Khan, the Afghan refugee crisis is a complex issue and has to be looked up at from several angles. Firstly, Pakistan has taken a political and not a humanitarian position relating to recent influx of Afghan nationals from across the border.
“Pakistan is reeling under the exhaustion of hosting millions of Afghan refugees for over 40 years,” she explained. “The registration process of these new Afghan entrants is extremely slow because Pakistan wants the international community, especially Western countries, should handle the burden of these refugees caused mostly by their intervention in Afghanistan.”
“Pakistan also does not want a repeat of the 80’s and 90’s that saw the promised international aid to Afghan refugees dwindle to a minuscule level, leaving the country’s economy to deal with the additional burden of refugees,” Khan added.
Secondly, Pakistan is not a signatory to the regulatory framework on refugees despite being one of the top countries hosting refugees for several decades, she said.
“Pakistan has explained its position on several forums that it wanted a permanent solution to the Afghan crisis that would enable the return of all refugees to their homeland,” she stated. “The influx of Afghan refugees has raised objections from Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where other local ethnic communities seen themselves being turned into a minority.”
Thirdly, Western countries have slowed down their promised intake of Afghan refugees following the war in Ukraine, Khan pointed out.
“The Afghan protesters in Islamabad belong to a category of Afghan nationals who were promised resettlement in Western countries, but their application process is in delay by the embassies concerned.”
In a written response to Voicepk.net, Qaiser Khan Afridi, spokesperson for UNHCR Pakistan, said the UN Refugee Agency was aware that a group of some Afghans have established an informal protest in Islamabad.
UNHCR is holding talks with Pakistani officials over devising a strategy to protect the most vulnerable of Afghan nationals fleeing Afghanistan in recent months, he added.
“UNHCR has met with the group on two occasions jointly with government authorities.”
The protest has been driven by frustration and anxiety among Afghans who have arrived in Pakistan in recent months, the UNHCR spokesperson said, adding that Pakistan has long enjoyed the deserved reputation as a generous and welcoming host country for refugees and others in need of protection.
“UNHCR has been supporting the Government of Pakistan to provide protection and assistance to the refugees since 1980. We are currently discussing with the Government of Pakistan the way forward on registration and documentation of asylum-seekers,” he wrote.
There might be therefore delays in the process, which the body will systematically convey through its communication with communities, the spokesperson said.
“We hope that with the continuous engagement and support of Pakistani government the current challenges will be addressed.”
UNHCR operates hotlines and dedicated e-mail accounts to respond to the individuals facing serious risks and/or having vulnerabilities that require support from UNHCR or our partners, he added.