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International Concerns Grow Over Afghan Repatriation Policy

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In a rapidly developing situation, the international humanitarian community, including the United Nations and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), is urging Pakistan to continue safeguarding the rights and well-being of vulnerable Afghan refugees within its borders. The plea comes as the Pakistan government seeks to repatriate Afghan nationals residing illegally in the country by an October 31 deadline.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) have expressed their concerns regarding Pakistan’s repatriation policy. They emphasize that Afghanistan is currently grappling with a severe humanitarian crisis, with specific human rights challenges, especially affecting women and girls. Forced returns to Afghanistan, they argue, could expose individuals to grave protection risks upon their return. The agencies are calling for all returns to be voluntary, safe, and dignified, ensuring the protection of those seeking safety.

While the UNHCR and IOM acknowledge Pakistan’s sovereign right to manage its population, they stress the importance of upholding the principle of non-refoulement – the prohibition of returning individuals to situations where they could face persecution or serious harm. Despite not being a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, Pakistan has played host to Afghan refugees for over four decades, and the UN agencies highlight the need to continue offering protection and support to those in need.

The HRCP has also voiced its concerns about the treatment of Afghan refugees. Reports of the summary eviction of Afghan-origin residents from their homes and the demolition of Afghan refugee settlements have led the commission to condemn what it deems “blatantly xenophobic” practices. The HRCP argues that forcibly deporting vulnerable Afghans is neither a sound nor practical approach, as it may put them at risk in their home country and lead to the separation of families, including women and children. Instead, the HRCP suggests expediting the registration of refugees and enacting legislation to protect their rights as residents in Pakistan.

Within Pakistan, there is opposition to the repatriation policy. Prominent political leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman, addressing a social media convention in Peshawar, expressed concerns about the potential consequences of this approach. Fazlur Rehman stressed that Pakistan cannot afford to sour relations with its neighbors, particularly Afghanistan. He noted that Afghanistan has endured four decades of war and has only recently achieved a fragile peace. Therefore, he argued, it is essential to exercise patience in dealing with Afghan refugees.

Fazlur Rehman raised concerns about the selective targeting of Pashtuns in the repatriation drive and called for a more equitable approach. He cautioned against creating an environment where Afghan refugees feel unwelcome, emphasizing the need for a diplomatic resolution to issues with Afghanistan. To this end, his party proposed the establishment of a joint Pak-Afghan commission to address and resolve bilateral concerns.

As the October 31 deadline for voluntary returns approaches, Pakistan finds itself at the center of a complex and rapidly evolving situation. International entities, including the UNHCR, IOM, and HRCP, are closely monitoring developments, emphasizing the importance of safeguarding the rights and safety of Afghan refugees. The need for a balanced and compassionate approach to repatriation is becoming increasingly evident, as Pakistan grapples with the multifaceted challenges posed by hosting Afghan nationals for decades.

In this critical period, both Pakistan and the international community face the delicate task of balancing security concerns with the protection of vulnerable individuals, ensuring that Afghan refugees are not subjected to undue hardship or harm during this transition.

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