Author: Ahmed Shams
Currently studying the Legal Practice Course at the University of Law in Manchester. He has an LLB (Bachelor of Law) degree from the University of London, LLM (International Business Law) degree from Queen Mary University of London.
“Vast migration of people, some voluntary most not, have shaped the human condition. More of us flee from war, oppression, and famine today than at any other time in human history. As the Earth’s climate changes in the coming decades, there are likely to be far greater numbers of environmental refugees. Better places will always call to us. Tides of people will continue to ebb and flow across the planet. But the lands we run to now have already been settled. Other people, often unsympathetic to our plight, are there before us.” When Carl Sagan was writing these words it was approximately three decades ago but they have indeed stood the test of time. But are they especially true, about the unsympathetic viewpoint of hosts to the plight of immigrants, in the modern era? An Afghan refugee might find it very true in specific parts of the world. For thousands of years, humans have been moving their homes to escape famine, persecution and war. In the modern era terrorism has become a relatively new and major reason behind forced migrations.
World war one caused massive ripples of international migrations. Waves of people were internally or externally displaced from their homes, all that sparked new debates, guidelines, international laws and conventions to protect a refugee’s basic human rights. As per the world bank data about forty million people were displaced until 1945. The global community came together not merely to acknowledge the traumas suffered but also to create various international instruments & mechanisms to protect and assist refugees. The United Nations was formed at the end of world war two, its aim was to protect the most vulnerable people wherever in the world they found themselves. The UNDHR was established in 1948, before this instrument, the rights of refugees were not anchored in international law and refugee rights were subjects to the local laws of the countries they fled to. Gradually, the scope, mandate & number of these instruments increased and improved over time. International support was clearly established when an important UN backed convention related to the rights of refugees was introduced at Geneva 1951, in 1967 a protocol was adopted and 148 countries signed on to one or both. The UN refugee convention is the centerpiece of international refugee protection today. The 1967 Protocol, removed the geographic and temporal limits of the 1951 Convention.
The convention states that people have these basic rights no matter where they are in the world. The right to education, to exercise religion, to justice, to remain in a country, to practice a profession, not to be punished for an illegal entry into the country, to housing and owning property, to public relief and assistance, to freedom of movement in the territory, to be issued identity and travel documents. One of the most important rights of a refugee under the convention is the prohibition of expulsion or return (“refoulement”). It states that no Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. The convention obliges all refugees to abide by the laws of their host countries and respect the maintenance of public order. Today, the convention is more important than ever, planet earth is facing its worst refugee crisis since world war two. As per the World Bank data indicators, planet earth saw more than
eighty million immigrants, between 2013 – 2016. According to a 2015 UNHCR report almost 1% of the world’s population is an asylum seeker, internally displaced or a refugee. That’s about 24 people displaced every minute. However, many countries are still shy of becoming parties to these instruments thereby directly or indirectly increasing upon the burdens and miseries that befall refugees in the host states. Most former colonial countries still have no legislations of their own to deal with the refugee crisis. Some even rely on the colonial laws to deal with outsiders.
The 2021 topple over of a government in Afghanistan, by the Taliban has caused a major humanitarian crisis in the region. The influx of Afghan refugees and the problems they face, may be taken as a litmus test for the efficiency of international law instruments such as the ones mentioned above. The recent events in Afghanistan has doubled the agony of a nation surviving a war that has spanned for decades. This time the blow was so big that, for the first time in history the world witnessed people hanging on to airplanes in hopes of fleeing their homes for a better and safe future. The world community has not yet recognized the Taliban as a legitimate government of Afghanistan which has led to further chaos and has led millions of Afghans stranded with no extrinsic or intrinsic help. As the country is currently stagnant, it is difficult both for the UN agencies and other NGOs to help these refugees. No matter how much one avoids it but this situation indeed raises a big question on the arrangements of the global refugee organizations and legislation. Some Afghans view these tools as practically useless as they claim that the instruments designed to deal with such emergency situations are bearing no fruit for them. And their host countries blatantly violate all the international law instruments.
For instance, a textbook example of this scenario has been witnessed by thousands of Afghan refugees stranded in their neighboring country of Pakistan. Although UNHCR is working on the refugee crisis in the country, Pakistan itself is not a party to the UN Convention on refugees or its 1967 protocols. Over and above Pakistan deals with refugees via the foreigners’ Act of 1946, the Act was passed by its former colonial master and the country has not yet passed any other legislation to deal with refugees coming to the country. It doesn’t stop there the country has not even made a single amendment to the act since its origin. The current Act enables the country to take away almost every right from the refugee that is being granted under international law, hence, making the lives of hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees down-casted. This situation has only added up to the depression of Afghan refugees and increased upon their trauma.
Amongst thousands of refugees in Pakistan is Abdul Latif, a medical doctor, who worked at the Shah Amanullah Ghazi Hospital in Kabul which provided treatment to Afghan security forces. Latif tells his story, that during his work at the hospital he would receive threats from the Taliban outfit to stop working at the American-funded hospital in Kabul or be ready for dire consequences. In April 2005, a group of Taliban militants attacked his vehicle in which he and his mother sustained severe burn injuries.
In the aftermath of the Taliban’s take over Latif’s family home in Kandahar was put on fire and riddled with bullets which left him and his family with no home to return to. As per him, life in Pakistan has just made things worse for him and his family as he cannot take any employment at any private or government hospital and his movements and that of his family members are restricted. He says that the trauma of all this is so deep that he sometimes doesn’t leave his hiding place for more than 5 days in a row. He says that no kind of administrative assistance is being provided to him or anyone he knows. At this point, he fears contacting the government bodies for fear of being deported back to Afghanistan where the Taliban persecution awaits him. It feels like a journey from one big concentration camp to another, says Abdul Latif. Yet another Afghan refugee family which took shelter in Karachi, in the month of May 2022 claims that a seven-year-old Tilla Sona Bibi, went missing in Karachi in the month of October. Although after a successful public campaign an FIR was registered at the PB Police Station East Karachi, there is no trace of the missing girl and no progress has been made so far. The family insists that the legal system is not very helpful as there has been no hearings before any court of law thus far and that they could not approach the higher authorities to take the matter seriously as the authorities have already shown very little interest in their case.
Despite having valid visas, hundreds of Afghans have already been deported to their home countries in the past and has faced immense problems as a consequence and the state of Pakistan has no consistent policy in place for these refugees. All this is happening in the presence of the UN, its subordinate organizations and international law. It is high time the world community engages in serious dialogue and try to make these international instruments more organized and efficient. They must also provide incentives or if needed to pressurize the host countries to treat refugees according to international laws or to at least introduce legislation that would protect the most vulnerable families and individuals fleeing their homes.
All this situation makes you wonder if the world is back to pre-UNDHR days and all the progress has been mere paperwork.
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