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Afghan Refugees in Pakistan: Striving for Recognition and Permanent Status

According to the UNHCR, more than 400,000 people have fled the violence, conflicts, and war in Afghanistan, seeking refuge in Pakistan.
by TNN Editor - 27 Jun, 2023 1646

Naser Khan Zazai

According to the UNHCR, more than 400,000 people have fled the violence, conflicts, and war in Afghanistan, seeking refuge in Pakistan. Since 2002, over 2.87 million Afghans have returned home from Pakistan, with more than 133,000 in 2006 alone.

In response, the Pakistan government and UNHCR initiated the official registration process to provide identification documents for Afghan refugees in Pakistan. The registration efforts have resulted in the registration of over 2.16 million Afghans, who have received official documentation recognizing them as Afghan citizens temporarily residing in Pakistan.

Of the total registered Afghans, 1,368,316 were registered in the North West Frontier Province, 454,726 in Baluchistan, 240,698 in Punjab and Islamabad, 92,189 in Sindh, and 6,055 in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

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Notably, nearly 60 percent of those registered are women and children under the age of five. Afghans above the age of five receive Proof of Registration (PoR) cards, valid until December 2009, which serve as temporary identification as Afghan citizens residing in Pakistan. Children under five are listed on their parents' cards.

The government has announced that Afghans without PoR cards will be considered illegal migrants. To address this, Pakistan and UNHCR have introduced the smart PoR cards, renewing them through four phases, with the latest phase commencing in 2021.

The second category pertains to the Afghan Citizen Card (ACC). In an effort to address unregistered Afghan refugees in Pakistan, the government and UNHCR initiated the issuance of Afghan Citizen Cards (ACC) during 2017-18. Approximately 840,000 undocumented Afghan refugees hold ACCs, while an estimated 775,000 remain unregistered in Pakistan.

The third category comprises asylum seekers who are registered with SHARP_UNHCR, holding asylum certificates and SHARP case codes. More than 600,000 Afghans have sought refuge in Pakistan since the Taliban assumed power in August 2021, dispersing across various regions of the country.

Raza Gul, a 50-year-old Afghan refugee, shares his experience as a PoR card holder. After migrating with his family to Pakistan during the Afghan war, they settled in an Afghan refugee camp in Peshawar. For the past 40 years, they have resided there.

However, they face challenges, as their temporary PoR cards are due to expire at the end of June 2023. They have been restricted in their movements within Pakistan and have been treated as undocumented refugees.

Raza Gul emphasizes the need for permanent documents that would grant them greater freedom, allowing them to engage in activities such as property ownership, business ventures, and mobility. He calls upon the Pakistani government and UNHCR to establish policies regarding permanent documents for Afghan refugees.

Malak Ghafar, another Afghan refugee stakeholder, has been living in Peshawar as a refugee for 40 years. He expresses gratitude towards UNHCR and the Pakistani government for their efforts in addressing the issues faced by Afghan refugees in Pakistan. However, he emphasizes the importance of granting Afghan refugees permanent status, as they have no intention of returning to Afghanistan due to the ongoing conflicts. Malak Ghafar acknowledges the existing benefits of PoR and ACC cards but asserts the necessity of a stronger policy that provides Afghan refugees with permanent status.

Abdul Qader, a holder of the Afghan Citizen Card (ACC), resides in an Afghan refugee camp in Kohat, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. He as well is grateful to Pakistan and UNHCR for their continuous efforts in assisting Afghan refugees.

Afghan refugees like Abdul Qader comply with Pakistani laws and regulations and are aware of the current situation in Afghanistan. He believes that it is highly unlikely for any Afghan refugee to return to Afghanistan given the challenges they face. He highlights the need for Afghan refugees to be granted permanent status in Pakistan, allowing them to enjoy the same rights and opportunities as refugees in Europe and other Western countries. Abdul Qader also appeals to the international community to support Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

Mohibullah, an Afghan refugee and university student pursuing a Bachelor's degree in Microbiology at Abasyn University in Peshawar, shares his personal experience. Although he has been accepted into the university, he faces difficulties due to his refugee status. Many universities in Pakistan do not accept POR card holders, making it challenging for Afghan refugees to access higher education.

He further explains that the expiration of his POR card will result in the deactivation of his bank account, hindering his ability to receive financial aid and apply for internships. He calls for recognition and acceptance of Afghan refugees based on their skills and qualifications, rather than their refugee status.

Raz Muhammad, a graduate of Peshawar University with a degree in psychology, holds a POR card as well. Despite his qualifications, he has faced rejection in both the private and government sectors due to his refugee status. He highlights the plight of many Afghan refugee graduates who are unable to secure long-term employment opportunities in Pakistan.

Muhammad urges the UNHCR and the Pakistani government to implement long-term policies that support the integration and employment of Afghan refugee graduates.

Moniza Kakar, an advocate, and lawyer working for Afghan refugee rights in Pakistan, shares her observations. She reveals that numerous documented Afghan refugees, including those with POR, ACC, and UNHCR cards, have been arrested. She notes the disparity between the Pakistani government's claims of arresting undocumented refugees and the reality on the ground.

Kakar points out the slow progress of UNHCR asylum interviews, which often take months or even years to conclude. Afghan refugees in Pakistan are eagerly awaiting their final interviews, but the delayed process hinders their access to legal protection. She emphasizes the need for improved policies and actions from both the UNHCR and the Pakistani government to address the challenges faced by Afghan refugees.

This article focuses on the experiences and perspectives of Afghan refugees in Pakistan, as well as the policies implemented by the Pakistan government and UNHCR. Extensive interviews were conducted with refugee advocates, lawyers, and other stakeholders working towards protecting the rights of Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

Efforts were also made to gather views from the UNHCR and the Commissionerate Afghan Refugees (CAR), but unfortunately, no response was received. Hence, public statements made by the Pakistan government and the UNHCR regarding the situation of Afghan refugees in Pakistan are included herein.

According to the UNHCR, Pakistan is not a party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees/1967 Protocol, and there is no national legislation or established procedures to determine refugee status within the country. As a result, individuals seeking international protection in Pakistan are treated in accordance with the provisions of the Foreigners Act, of 1946.

To address the absence of a national refugee legal framework, the UNHCR carries out refugee status determination under its mandate and on behalf of the Government of Pakistan, in accordance with the 1993 Cooperation Agreement between the two entities. Generally, Pakistan accepts UNHCR decisions regarding refugee status and allows both asylum-seekers and recognized refugees to stay in the country while durable solutions are sought.

In 2007, the Government of Pakistan conducted a registration exercise for Afghan refugees residing in the country. Proof of Registration (PoR) cards were issued to approximately 1.34 million Afghans, granting them temporary legal stay, freedom of movement, and exemption from the Foreigners Act, of 1946.

Currently, the government, with support from the UNHCR, is conducting the Documentation Verification and Information Verification (DRIVE) exercise to verify PoR cards. Successful verification will result in the issuance of new smart PoR cards with a validity of two years.

Note: The author, an Afghan freelance journalist, and researcher, is currently associated with Tribal News Network (TNN) as an Afghan citizen journalist.