ISLAMABAD — The U.N. refugee agency is warning that Afghan refugees in Pakistan are increasingly becoming victims of extortion, illegal detention and harassment. Pakistan has taken in millions of Afghans since the Soviet invasion in 1979 and has some 1.6 million registered Afghan refugees.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, hundreds of registered Afghan refugees have recently been illegally swept up and briefly held by Pakistani authorities during security operations.
U.N. representative Neill Wright said most of the arrests came during operations in Pakistan's restive southwestern province of Baluchistan and the southern city of Karachi, mainly because of institutional delays in updating refugee status cards.
"Normally every month there would be just a small number of arrests and releases," Wright explained. "However in the last two or three months, particularly in the two operations that I mentioned, these numbers have gone up into the hundreds every week or every month, so the number has significantly increased."
Wright added that the refugees were quickly released, but he called on law enforcement agencies to respect the rights of refugees and work on reducing the number of arrests.
Islamabad, in its second extension since December 2012, recently said that registered Afghan refugees can legally remain in Pakistan until December 2015. However, many refugees are holding expired identity cards - leading to mistaken detention and abuse.
Wright's counterpart in the Pakistan Ministry of States and Frontier Regions, Imran Zeb, acknowledged that in some cases local security forces were taking advantage of the situation.
"For example, if there is a man traveling on a bus, and if any security person or any police constable comes and asks for his identification, and he does not have one, or has, as I said an invalid card, so he is taken down from the bus and taken aside, so at the very lower level," noted Wright, "this is not something that regards to the government or to any institution or to any people, these are individual to individuals -- so that particular constable would try to try whatever means he can to benefit himself also and release the guy also. So that is the extortion."
Millions of refugee Afghans poured over the border into Pakistan when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, and more joined them when the Taliban took over in the late 1990s. In the last 10 years, some 3.8 million have been repatriated, but Pakistan still hosts more than one and a half million authorized Afghan refugees.
"There are 1.61 million registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan today, and some of them were issued their PoR [Proof of Registration] cards in 2010 in different locations from where they are living today," said Wright, noting that issuing renewed cards is not a simple process. "So you can imagine the logistics and the cost of replacing all of those cards."
The UNHCR and the government of Pakistan have set up complaint cells and a hotline for those authorized refugees who need help.