Asylum seekers in Karachi tell of terror of being sent back to the Taliban and despair at being shackled and held in Pakistani jails

Shah Meer Baloch in Pakistan

The Guardian

Thu 2 Mar 2023

Pakistan crackdown on Afghan refugees leaves ‘four dead’ and thousands in cells

Refugees are reportedly dying in Pakistani prisons, and children are being arrested and tied together with ropes, as a wave of detentions and deportations spreads fearamong the hundreds of thousands of Afghans who have crossed the border since the Taliban took power.

According to lawyers representing Afghans in detention, at least four people have died in custody, and thousands more, including children, are being held in prisons as Pakistan hardens its stance against Afghan citizens.

The most recent death in custody was a 50-year-old Afghan man who was refused hospital treatment while he waited for a judge to hear his case, according to Moniza Kakar, a Karachi-based human rights lawyer who has been fighting to stop Afghan asylum seekers and refugees being deported to Afghanistan.

Kakar claimed that other Afghans in detention were being mistreated, and the judicial process was not being carried out properly by judges assigned to their cases. Photos have emerged on social media claiming to show refugee children bound together with ropes by police in Karachi.

“In this crackdown, registered and unregistered Afghans are facing the brunt,” she said. “More than 800 Afghans are in prisons in Karachi and across Sindh province alone, and at least 1,100 have been deported who had no documents.”

Earlier this week, the Guardian attended a deportation hearing in Karachi and witnessed dozens of shackled Afghan refugees and asylum seekers being held in cramped cells while they awaited their court hearing.

A young mother, Ayesha Bashir, was being held in a cell with her five-year-old daughter. She had been in detention for three months, she said, after crossing the border in north-west Pakistan and travelling to Karachi to consult a gynaecologist after multiple miscarriages.

“We were more than 20 people on a bus,” she said. “Before we entered Karachi, the police stopped the bus in the bordering town of Hub. They asked for our visas or identity cards, but we didn’t have any.”

Afghan asylum seekers await their fate at a deportation hearing in Karachi this week. Photograph: Shah Meer Baloch

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan condemned the treatment of Afghan refugees and demanded that the authorities follow judicial process. It said in a statement: “The government must take responsibility for any Afghan women and children in its custody and ensure they are given immediate access to legal counsel. It must also hold to account anyone responsible for intimidating human rights defenders attempting to highlight the plight of these prisoners.”

While Pakistani authorities claim they are only detaining illegal Afghan entrants, Kakar said those with official UNHCR refugee status are also being arrested and detained. “More than 450 Afghans with refugee status have [now] also been arrested,” she said.

Since the Taliban seized power in August 2021, about 250,000 Afghans have arrived in Pakistan. Last summer, it began a programme to send undocumented migrants back across the border. Since then, arrests and deportations have increased with more than 600 Afghans allegedly deported in just three days in January, and thousands more detained.

In the past few weeks, targeting of Afghans, regardless of their legal status, has turned more aggressive. Multiple sources within the security services say this is linked to a surge of violent attacks by the Pakistani Taliban, amid accusations by the authorities that the Taliban are providing safe sanctuary to Pakistani militants.

The sources said that Afghan asylum seekers are suspected of having links to the Pakistani Taliban and other militant groups. One security official, who asked not to be named, said: “Afghan refugees can easily move, and they don’t have identification. So they are used in militancy.”

Afghans in exile in Pakistan, who spoke to the Guardian under condition of anonymity, said they now live in constant fear for their lives, seldom leaving their homes.

Salima, a 45-year-old Afghan surgeon, said: “We have no job, no income, my children are out of school, and we have to pay exorbitant fees to renew our visas.” Salima had faced constant threats in Afghanistan, she said, not just from the Taliban but also from other criminal groups. “One day, armed men tried to kidnap my child. We barely escaped alive.”

She and her family entered Pakistan legally but now fear the escalating round-ups of Afghan families and mass detentions. They are terrified of being arrested and sent back to the Taliban.

“Just a few days ago, I was pulled out of a taxi by the police,” she said. “They rounded me up with other Afghans and didn’t even allow me to show my documents. They were angry and abusive. I had to beg them to forgive me, even though I didn’t commit any crimes. I am here on a proper visa.”

Although Pakistan has not adopted the UN Refugee Convention 1951, which confers a legal duty on countries to protect people fleeing serious harm, it has entered a tripartite agreement with Afghanistan and the UNHCR, which allows the UNHCR to provide Afghan refugees with registration documents that entitle them to stay in Pakistan and open bank accounts.

Twenty kilometres from Karachi city, in an informal settlement for Afghan refugees, Masooma* showed the Guardian her refugee registration documents and told how her husband, Siraj Ud Din, and his friend, Abdul Salam, were also registered as refugees with the UNHCR but were arrested last year.

Masooma*, second from left with her children, shows her refugee registration document. Photograph: Shah Meer Baloch

She said the police arrested them for being undocumented, but the truth was that “the police have lost or thrown their cards. How is it possible I have a card and my husband does not have one?”

Her mother-in-law, sitting close by, said her son was born in Pakistan. “We have been in Pakistan for the last 40 years. All my children were born here. The police have told us he will be deported to Afghanistan after six months. We have no one there now.”

Pakistan’s states and frontier regions minister, Senator Talha Mahmood, disputed that there had been a crackdown on Afghans living in Pakistan but said that routine raids were being carried out to search for undocumented immigrants from Afghanistan.

A spokesperson for UNHCR said: “UNHCR acknowledges Pakistan’s generosity in hosting one of the world’s largest refugee populations for more than 40 years. Since 2021, UNHCR has been in discussions with the government on measures and mechanisms to support vulnerable Afghans. Regrettably, no progress has been made.

“We are concerned regarding reports of the arrest and detention of Afghan refugees in Sindh province. The government and people of Pakistan have a commendable, decades-long history of providing asylum and protection to displaced Afghans, and we urge authorities to release those who are seeking asylum.”

* Name has been changed to protect identity

Additional reporting by Ruchi Kumar

Asylum seekers in Karachi tell of terror of being sent back to the Taliban and despair at being shackled and held in Pakistani jails