Karim, an Afghan refugee, lives in fear of the day when he runs out of money to bribe Pakistan's police.
Then, “they will kill me,” he told Human Rights Watch in a report released Wednesday detailing alleged police abuses against Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
The police have have become among the most feared institutions there, particularly in the province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, which hosts the majority of Afghan refugees.
Karim came to Pakistan with his family from Laghman, Afghanistan, in 1985. He was 12 years old, and has lived in Pakistan ever since. A shopkeeper based in the city of Peshawar, Karim says police harassment against Afghans has become so extreme in the last year, many are afraid to leave their homes, and have to pay bribes to avoid harassment.
“None of my family members except me and my brother leave the house now. Our children do not go to school, they do not even go to play outside anymore,” he said.
The names in the report — titled “‘What Are You Doing Here?’: Police abuses against Afghans in Pakistan” — were changed for the interview subjects' safety. HRW spoke to Afghan refugees in Peshawar as well as returnees to Kabul
For Karim, returning to Afghanistan is still a worse option because of Taliban fighting in Laghman
“My association is with Pakistan. It is safer here. I will prefer being tortured and killed here than go back and risk the lives of all my family,” he said.
Regardless of their legal status, Afghans complain of being refused appointments and medication at public hospitals, forced relocation to government-managed refugee camps, lessening job opportunities and a perpetually threatened atmosphere where police can raze shops to the ground, loot and demand bribe on a daily basis.
Everyone interviewed by HRW in Kabul said they had returned to Afghanistan out of fear of the police.
Paying the price for Peshawar
Life became particularly difficult for Afghans after the attack on Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014, said to be the worst terrorist attack in Pakistan’s history.
The provincial government blamed Afghan refugees for the massacre, which killed 145 people, 132 of them schoolchildren. Afghans were accused by the government of housing terrorists and arbitrarily arrested shortly after the attack.
Four days after the bloodshed, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government announced that it would expel Afghan all refugees within a month. Some were deported, but others remained as a new deadline was annonced the following month.
In January, the federal government too, presented its ‘National Action Plan’ for counterterrorism. This was a quickly formulated 20-point agenda in response to the school attack, which included registration and repatriation of all Afghans by the end of December 2015.
According to the UNHCR, nine times as many registered refugees returned to Afghanistan in January 2015 than they had a month before in December.
And between January and mid-February 33,000 undocumented Afghans — those not legally registered in Pakistan — returned to their country of origin, largely to escape harassment, says the UNHCR report, citing the IOM.
This was a 155 increase over the number of Pakistanis who returned to Afghanistan in the same period in 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration.
The UNHCR estimates that there are 1.5 million registered refugees and 1 million undocumented Afghans.
Police dispute findings
As December nears, Afghans face a more precarious situation as the end of the year is the final deadline for repatriation.
Islamabad is considering an extension for refugees until 2017, but the final decision is currently pending with the federal cabinet, UNHCR communication officer Duniya Aslam Khan said.
If their stay is not extended, more than a million peple may be forced to leave.
For many Afghans, Pakistan is the only home they know. Saima, among the people interviewed by HRW, was born and bred in Peshawar. She says she had not witnessed such discrimination in the 25 years she has lived in Pakistan as she has in the past year.
Farhang also returned to Afghanistan in July this year. Originally from Parwan, Farhang came to Pakistan with his family in 1992, when he was eight years old. His father found work as a taxi driver in Peshawar and Farhang too, grew up to become a rickshaw driver. After 23 years, he has moved to Kabul with his family.
In his interview, Farhang described how the police had started coming into their homes.
“They came to our house and kicked in the door — this was after the [Peshawar] school incident. The children were very afraid. The police asked us “What are you doing here?” — Go to your own country.” It was 1 a.m. …They put all the men in the police car and took us to the police station. We spent 11 days in jail. Then they took us to the border and told us to cross. I crossed, but then [a few days] later I returned to take my wife and child to Afghanistan. So I came to Kabul but I don’t have any work or place to live here.”
Increased intimidation of Afghan refugees after the Peshawar school attack has also been observed by the UNHCR.
“In the first quarter of the year in particular, Afghan refugees as well as undocumented Afghans were frequently arrested and detained during security operations throughout the country. They were evicted from their places of residence and faced extortion and other forms of harassment by law enforcement authorities, including during their repatriation travel to Afghanistan,” Khan said.
The police, however, finds such allegations baseless.
A senior police officer in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Mohammad Ali Babakhel told Al Jazeera: “Afghans have been living in the province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa since decades. They are not treated as aliens or outsiders.”
He added that police avoid any discriminatory practices and treat all Afghans according to legal and social norms.
HRW representative in Pakistan, Saroop Ijaz, disagrees with Babakhel’s perception and says Afghans are “ghettoized.”
“I met Afghans who were born in Pakistan, never lived in Afghanistan and whose children were born in Pakistan yet they were the ‘Afghans,’ the ‘other people,’ who dealt with insecurity and fear on a daily basis,” Ijaz said.
“It was an experience that highlighted that official policies and propaganda can potentially threaten long bonds of shared culture and history — an ugly realization,” he said.