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Pakistan church demands humane treatment of Afghans

Thousands of refugees stranded amid border restrictions 

Pakistan church demands humane treatment of Afghans

Afghan refugees sit on a truck with their belongings at the registration center of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees  before returning to Afghanistan in northwestern Pakistan's Peshawar on Aug. 17, 2016. (Photo: IANS) 

Kamran Chaudhry, Lahore

March 10, 2017

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Afghan refugees stranded in Pakistan need to be treated with respect, dignity and are deserving of basic human rights, a lack of which will only fuel hatred and terrorism, bishops say.  

The government announced that Torkham and Chaman crossings will be open for only two days to allow Afghan and Pakistani travelers stranded on both sides to return home.

More than 19,000 people crossed over to Afghanistan on March 7 when Pakistani authorities temporarily reopened the border with Afghanistan after 18 days.

The border was closed after a Feb. 16 suicide attack at a Sufi shrine killed 88 people. Afghanistan-based Taliban faction Jamaat-ul-Ahrar claimed responsibility.

"Pakistan has to prioritize its own security but there are more humane ways to deal with people who deserve their basic rights. They must be facilitated as per our laws," said Bishop Joseph Arshad,  apostolic administrator of Islamabad-Rawalpindi.

Lutheran Bishop Jimmy Mathew of Mardan, said that a sudden change in government policy could result in a backlash. 

"We are talking about a whole generation born and raised in a region that was culturally friendly on both sides. Pakistanis could park their vehicles at the border and hire another car in Afghanistan. Some people own properties in both territories. Now it's a panic. The common man is suffering. This may result in hate, unemployment and terrorism," he said.

Imran Khan, Pakistan's cricketer-turned-politician, tweeted on March 4 that the "closure of the Pakistan-Afghan border is building into a humanitarian crisis."

The two governments need to "cooperate effectively on cross-border terrorism," he said. 

In the 1980s, Pakistan sheltered about 5 million Afghan refugees as Afghan guerrilla fighters battled invading Russian troops. About 1.3 million registered Afghan refugees, besides hundreds of thousands of unregistered ones, remain in the country.

However, since 2015, Pakistan authorities have mounted a concerted campaign to drive Afghans out of the country in response to security incidents and deteriorating political relations between the two nations.

"The exodus amounts to the world's largest unlawful forced return of refugees in recent times," said Human Rights Watch in a report released in February. In December 2016, UNHCR also warned that the massive number of returnees could "develop into a major humanitarian crisis."

The UNHCR website says "Pakistan continues to host approximately 1.45 million refugees. Most are from Afghanistan and live in refugee villages and urban areas. Since March 2002, UNHCR has facilitated the return of approximately 4.1 million registered Afghans from Pakistan."

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