Jalal Shah, a 50-year-old Afghan registered refugee who has lived in Peshawar for the past 20 years, used to eke out a decent livelihood as a vegetable vendor. That ended in the aftermath of the December 16, 2014 brutal attack by the so-called Pakistani Taliban, Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, on the Army Public School in Peshawar, killing 145 people, including 132 children.
The Pakistani government reacted to that atrocity with a series of repressive measures, including the introduction of military courts to prosecute terrorism suspects and the lifting of an unofficial moratorium on the death penalty. For a while it even mulled registering and repatriating undocumented Afghans. And on the streets of Peshawar, the city with the largest proportion of Afghan residents in Pakistan, local police have targeted Shah and other Afghans with an unlawful reprisal campaign that has driven some to return to Afghanistan.
“The traffic police come almost every day now,” Shah told Human Rights Watch in October. “They literally loot and plunder…demand bribe money from whomever they want and take away anything they wish. The police officers took away all my vegetables and demolished my shop. The police say that we Afghans have no right to be here and do business.”
These abuses shouldn’t be happening. And they contradict explicit government assurances to Pakistan’s Afghan population. On June 23, Federal Minister for States and Frontier Regions, Gen. (retired) Abdul Qadir Baloch, announced that there would be no official reprisals against the country’s Afghan population in response to the Peshawar attack.
But Shah’s ordeal at the hands of the Pakistani police is not an isolated case. Human Rights Watch research indicates that Pakistani police have pursued an unofficial campaign of punitive retribution that has included raids on Afghan settlements, detention, harassment and physical violence against Afghans, extortion, and demolition of Afghan homes.
Over the past year, Human Rights Watch has interviewed dozens of Afghans, both registered refugees who possess official Proof of Registration (PoR) cards, and people who are undocumented, who described similar patterns of abuse by Pakistani police. In some cases, police told the people they were abusing that they should go back to Afghanistan.
In a report issued on November 18 “What Are You Doing Here? — Police Abuses Against Afghans in Pakistan,” Human Rights Watch describes how widespread police vindictiveness against Afghans is victimising and marginalising an already deeply vulnerable population.
Targeted police actions over the past year have profoundly harmed the livelihoods of Afghans in Pakistan. Afghans described how their fear of police abuses since December 2014 — including regular demands for extortionate bribes to avoid arrest and detention — has driven them into isolation in their homes. Pakistani police intimidation has prompted entire families to restrict their movements, leading to economic hardship and curtailing access to education and employment.
In some cases, the police reprisal campaign has involved physical violence. Raza Gul, a 23-year-old fruit vendor in Peshawar, described the gratuitous brutality of a police raid on his fruit stand earlier this year. The police “started beating us for no reason,” Gul said. “One police constable hit me on the head with a weighing stone and I had to get stitches in my head.”
The rampant police abuses against Afghans in Pakistan are a disturbing departure from a decades-long official policy of Pakistani hospitality and tolerance for one of the largest displaced populations in the world. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that Pakistan is home to a population of 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees and 1 million undocumented Afghans. That includes Afghans who fled conflict and repression in Afghanistan during the late 1970s and early 1980s, and their descendants. Some arrived as children, grew up in Pakistan, married, and had children of their own who have never lived in Afghanistan. Others have arrived in the decades of turmoil in Afghanistan since, seeking security, employment, and a higher standard of living.
Sadly, the rising police hostility over the past year has prompted many Afghans to flee the relative security of Pakistan and return to Afghanistan out of economic desperation or fear for their families’ safety. The overwhelming majority of undocumented Afghans who left Pakistan after December 16, 2014 were not formally deported, but were categorised as “spontaneous returns.” The International Organization of Migration reported that many of the 33,000 undocumented Afghans who returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan from the beginning of 2015 through the first two weeks of February — a 155 per cent increase from the total number of such returns in calendar year 2014 — reported that they left Pakistan to escape harassment following the Peshawar attack.
That harassment has continued. The UNHCR reports for August and September state that “[i]n general, eviction notices by the authorities, harassment, intimidation, movement limitations, economic factors, settlement closure/consolidation and fear of arrest and/or deportation were mentioned by interviewed [Afghan] returnees as the main push factors of return from Pakistan so far this year.”
Even registered refugees with PoR cards have fled to Afghanistan due to police abuses. Jawar, a 40-year-old registered refugee who had lived in Rawalpindi for 20 years after fleeing Afghanistan’s civil war in the mid-nineties, said that he and his family faced unrelenting police harassment following the December Peshawar school attack. That harassment culminated in a police requirement for Afghans in Jawar’s area to relocate to a special government camp. “At the camp there was no electricity, no hot water, nowhere to work,” Jawar said. “So we had to come back.” People like Jawar may well add to the numbers of those seeking refuge in Europe as conditions deteriorate in Afghanistan.
The Pakistani government should no longer turn a blind eye to these abuses. It should address the police-inflicted crisis against its Afghan population with decisive measures to end the police harassment, intimidation and violence that is victimising Afghans. Until it does, Afghans in Pakistan will continue to be forced to choose between seclusion, fear and privation or an even more uncertain future back in their conflict-wracked homeland.
The writer is deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch