In a makeshift Afghan refugee camp off the Northern Bypass, many inhabitants sit and gossip along the neighbourhood’s dusty lanes.
Most of the refugees are avoiding leaving the camp for work and other reasons as they are afraid that police will harass them even though many of them posses a proof of registration (PoR) card.
Bashir Ahmed, 30, a daily-wage construction worker, is one of them. “It has become very difficult for us to roam easily,” Ahmed told The News.
After an attack on a school in Peshawar in December last year that killed over 130 students, the law enforcement agencies, especially police, have started a crackdown against Afghan refugees across the country.
Their leaders claim that police have arrested dozens of Afghan refugees in Karachi since the APS attack.
Haji Sohrab, a representative of the Afghan refugees in Karachi, said the law enforcement agencies, in the beginning, had started their crackdown against Afghan refugees in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Azad Jammu and Kashmir, but now they had also intensified their operation against the community in Karachi.
“Police have also been arresting the Afghan refugees who possess PoR cards issued by the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) that are valid till December 31,” Sohrab added.
Interviews with Afghan refugees suggest that the recent crackdown has compelled many of them to return to their home country, despite the harsh cold weather and security issues.
They said police were arresting dozens of refugees in different areas in Karachi every day and registering cases against only a few of them under the Foreign Registration Act (FRA). The rest were released after taking bribes ranging between Rs10,000 and Rs50,000.
Sohrab claimed that he had released around 200 refugees on bail in recent weeks.
Afghan refugees said after every major terrorist attack, the law enforcement agencies targeted the community, despite the fact that their involvement was not proved.
“The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, a Pakistani militant group, claimed the responsibility of the Peshawar attack and also issued photos of the attackers, who were Pakistani, but police have still been targeting us,” said Ahmed, a charged young Afghan refugee.
Ahmed is also thinking of leaving Pakistan now. “A number of Afghan refugees have recently gone back to Afghanistan through the Chaman and Torkham borders because of recent crackdown,” he said.
However, police officials, denying the allegations, said they were only arresting illegal refugees.
“If refugees don’t have PoR cards, that means that they are illegal and we are only arresting them,” said an officer at the Gulshan-e-Maymar police station requesting anonymity.
“The refugees’ leaders are baselessly alleging that police are harassing the refugees with PoR cards or freeing them after taking bribes,” he added.
A recent visit to a makeshift Afghan refugee camp in Karachi made clear that Pakistani authorities have sent a large number of legal and illegal Afghan refugees back to their native land.
With the assistance of the Afghan consulate, Sohrab released 26 Afghan refugees from a prison in Sukkur District in January and handed them over to Afghan authorities at the Chaman border in Balochistan.
Sohrab said the refugees were arrested in Sukkur while travelling to Karachi. “Some of them were coming to Karachi for medical treatment and others were living in the city for the past two decades,” he said.
“In many cases, police tear up the PoR cards and register cases against the refugees under the FRA.”
Janan Mosazai, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan, in his visit to Karachi in January, said his country, Pakistan and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had agreed on a voluntary, dignified and gradual return of refugees from Pakistan.
“To bring back all refugees from Pakistan is key priority of the Afghan government. For this purpose, our government is improving environment to persuade them to return,” Mosazai said.
He added that the Sindh chief minister had assured him in a meeting that the provincial government would treat Afghan refugees in a dignified way.
Pakistan has been host to the world’s largest refugee population. Millions of Afghans fled to Pakistan in the 1980s after the Soviet invasion and during the rule of Taliban in the late 1990s.
“Currently, there are some 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan who are in possession of the PoR cards,” said Duniya Aslam Khan, a spokesperson for the UNHCR in Pakistan.
“These cards are valid until December 2015 and give the holders protection against arbitrary detention and deportation under the FRA.”
The UNHCR does not have any statistics on undocumented immigrants, but according to government estimates, they could be between 1 million and 1.5 million. Mosazai said the majority of refugees had been residing in Khyber Pakhutnkhwa and Balochistan, while their number in Sindh was around 65,000.
Over 81 percent of Afghans are Pashtuns, with much smaller percentages of Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and other ethnic groups, according to a report titled “Afghan Refugees in Pakistan: Push Comes to Shove” prepared by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
In Sindh, nationalist parties and a section of the civil society regularly raise their concerns over the presence of Afghan refugees in the province, especially in Karachi, and demand that the government should send them back.