The United Nations refugee agency today welcomed the Pakistani Government's quick response to reports that Afghan asylum seekers in the capital, Islamabad, and neighbouring areas have been suffering police harassment and other forms of discrimination.
The government has set up a task force to look into a "disturbing number" of complaints received in recent days by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) from Afghan refugees about arbitrary arrests, police raids into slum areas, forced evictions and extortion, a spokesman for the UN agency said in Geneva.
"The first meeting took place yesterday, and UNHCR welcomes the central government's swift response to the concerns UNHCR has raised," spokesman Ron Redmond said.
Prior to yesterday's meeting, UNHCR had two high-level meetings with government authorities in which it expressed its deep concern that, at a time when over 650,000 refugees have already repatriated from Pakistan in under three months, coercive measures were counterproductive and could have a negative impact on the voluntary repatriation from Pakistan, Mr. Redmond said.
According to the spokesman, UNHCR has received reports that police in Rawalpindi and Islamabad arrested more than 400 people and confined others to their homes in what seems to have amounted to house arrest. There was also information about random police raids in slum areas inhabited by Afghans, during which police demanded money from refugees and threatened them with jail if they failed to pay.
Meanwhile in Murree, a town north of the capital, a group of some 100 Afghan Tajiks were apparently forced out of their homes by plainclothes police. Some were arrested, and the rest could see no other alternative but to hire trucks and repatriate to Afghanistan, Mr. Redmond said.
UNHCR protection staff have been following up on the reports and will continue to keep the Pakistani Government informed of their findings, the spokesman noted. While close to 654,000 Afghans have returned from Pakistan with the agency's help, "UNHCR was concerned that a certain number of people, such as the Tajiks in Murree, may be going back for reasons that could not be described as truly voluntary," Mr. Redmond said.