The UN refugee agency has fallen short of its mandate to protect refugees by failing to denounce a “campaign of abuse” by that has ushered thousands of Afghans out of the country, leaving them at risk of persecution at home, according to Human Rights Watch.
Last year the Pakistani government ordered all Afghan migrants and refugees to leave the country, mounting a campaign of intimidation, , that has so far led to the eviction of nearly 600,000 people since July.
Exiled from Pakistan, destitute Afghans return to a country at war
Afghans in Pakistan constitute one of the world’s largest refugee communities, housing until recently an estimated 1.5 million registered and 1 million unregistered Afghan refugees. Many are second- or third-generation refugees with little connection to .
After the Pakistani government last year ordered all Afghan migrants and refugees to leave, authorities began raiding their homes and shops. On a , the Guardian heard stories of police harassment and arbitrary arrests and of landlords cancelling leases. There were also reports of communities that had housed refugees for decades suddenly turning against Afghan families.
By not denouncing the mass eviction as – the return of refugees to a country where they have reason to fear persecution – HRW said the UN High Commissioner for (UNHCR) had failed in its duty to protect refugees.
By failing to accurately inform of the conditions awaiting returnees in Afghanistan, and handing out $400 (£320) cash grants to each returning registered refugee between June and December last year, the agency “effectively promoted the forced return”, HRW added.
“The UN refugee agency should end the fiction that the mass forced return of Afghan refugees from Pakistan is, in fact, mass voluntary return,” said the report.
Patricia Gossman, senior researcher HRW, added: “UNHCR’s essential mandate is protection.”
A spokeswoman for the refugee agency, Ariane Rummery, said: “UNHCR has been raising concerns about the pressures on Afghans.” She emphasised the complexity of the factors driving the situation, which she said included Pakistani security operations, economic hardship and a campaign by the Afghan government to encourage Afghans in Pakistan to return home.
She said that UNHCR “advocates for an improvement in the protection environment for Afghans in Pakistan”, and pointed out that Pakistan recently extended the deadline for Afghans in that country to leave until the end of 2017.
“It is not UNHCR’s opinion that the situation can be characterised as refoulement, but there is no question Afghan refugees are having to make tough decisions on where they can find more reliable and predictable protection at this time,” Rummery said.
“We call on the international community and the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan to ensure that refugee repatriation is voluntary, gradual and aligned with development programmes as well as efforts to bolster peace and security.”
Laurence Hart, chief of mission in Afghanistan for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), said it was unfair to point fingers at the UNHCR in failing to stand up to Pakistan’s conduct.
“They have certainly made, along with other actors, a lot of advocacy but perhaps it wasn’t public,” he said. “International agencies need to preserve their operational space in Pakistan and being too public in their statements could jeopardise this space.”
But other organisations agreed with HRW’s criticism.
“We have a situation now in which UNHCR is clearly facilitating a return of refugees that appears involuntary, and this is against the core principle of refugee law,” said William Carter, head of programme with the Norwegian Refugee Council.
He added that the organisation had tried without success to convince the UNHCR to change approach. “Unfortunately UNHCR remained intransigent,” Carter said.
After a hiatus over winter, the UNHCR plans to resume cash support to returnees in March, but critics say a different solution is needed.
Approximately 40% of the 600,000 returnees are not documented refugees. They do not receive UNCHR cash grants, which in the case of large families can add up to several thousand dollars.
“I think the main issue is that response to returnees, being undocumented or registered refugees, remains unbalanced notwithstanding the similar vulnerable situation they find themselves in,” said Hart. “It would be important to move from a status-based approach to a need-based one, so that inequities are avoided,” he said.
The NRC insisted that cash grants be abolished completely for now.
“Clearly, the UNHCR should not resume its repatriation programme until we are sure that refugees are returning voluntarily,” Carter said. “The Afghan government needs to give itself enough time to put in place realistic plans and finances to provide durable solutions for returnees.”
Most returning Afghans settle in the poor eastern province of Nangarhar or in the capital, Kabul.
“Obviously, when these people come to the country they become very vulnerable,” said Timor Sharan, Afghanistan analyst with the International Crisis Group. “They settle around urban centres, which may be relatively safe, but what essentially happens is it cuts them off from communities they belong to.”
Returnees sometimes resort to extreme methods to cope.
During her six years in Punjab in Pakistan, Daryan Begam had a stable life. She helped support her four children, including a disabled daughter, by sewing footballs. But a year ago, shortly after her husband died, authorities began pressuring her until she left. To pay rent in her new house in Nangarhar, the widow said she had to marry off her daughter, who is 15, to a local police chief.
“My daughters don’t have a father so we have no provider at home. It is not easy for a mother to marry her daughter off at a young age, but I had no choice,” Begam said.