PESHAWAR / AP
In a scathing indictment of Pakistan’s treatment of Afghan refugees, a human rights group charged on Monday that the country is forcing hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees back to their homeland, which is still beset by war and crushing poverty. It also said that a $400 stipend the United Nations refugee agency gives to refugees who return to Afghanistan is tantamount to a bribe to convince reluctant Afghans to leave Pakistan. “The exodus amounts to the world’s largest unlawful mass forced return of refugees in recent times,” the Human Rights Watch report says.
Both the UN and Pakistan denied the allegations. In an interview, Indrika Ratwatte, Pakistan’s country representative for the UN refugee agency, said there was police harassment and arrests of Afghan refugees in mid-2016, particularly in the border province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but it was ended and refugees who returned, went home voluntarily.
“There were incidences of pressure and harassment especially in KP but they were addressed,” said Ratwatte. “But does it amount to forced return. No. it doesn’t.” Still, the report was harsh in its criticism of the UN agency for not condemning what it insisted is Pakistan’s forced return of the refugees.
Meanwhile, Pakistan cited security concerns for seeking Afghan refugees’ return to their homeland, particularly after several brutal attacks by militants in Pakistan’s northwest, which the government linked to insurgents hiding out in neighboring Afghanistan. The worst attack was in December 2014 against an army public school in which 150 people were killed, most of them children.
At its peak in the 1980s Pakistan sheltered an estimated 5mn Afghan refugees as Afghan guerrilla fighters battled invading Russian troops aided by the United States and other western countries. Today there are still 1.3 million registered Afghan refugees living in Pakistan, says Ratwatte, some of them for 37 years. Pakistan currently hosts the world’s largest protracted refugee population, he said. There are hundreds of thousands of unregistered Afghan refugees living in the country as well.