Pakistan said this month it will begin screening for deportation tens of thousands of Afghans who have taken shelter in the country. The screening is intended to distinguish asylum-seekers from what Pakistan says are mostly economic migrants. It coincides with a UN warning this week that Afghan refugees are facing an increasingly hostile reception worldwide. In the second of a two-part series on Afghan refugees, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at reports from a non-governmental human rights group that Afghan refugees in Pakistan are frequently targeted by police seeking bribes as the price for not deporting them.
Prague, 12 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The recent death of an Afghan refugee in northwestern Pakistan -- reportedly following a police beating -- has publicized what refugees have long said is the widespread Pakistani police practice of demanding they pay bribes to avoid being expelled to Afghanistan.
The non-governmental human rights organization Amnesty International has demanded the Pakistani government look into the death last month of Afghan refugee Salahuddin Samadi, who was allegedly stopped by police and severely beaten after not paying a bribe. Samadi died two weeks ago (27 June) in an Islamabad hospital after remaining in a coma for 10 days after the beating.
Islamabad's police chief Nasir Durrani has said that an investigation has been opened and that one police officer, Mohammad Saeed, has been dismissed and arrested on murder charges.
Amnesty International says that Samadi's killing is part of a pattern of harassment of Afghans by Pakistani security forces that annually sees thousands of people stopped in the streets of the northwestern city of Peshawar and elsewhere. Those detained are accused on the spot by policemen of being in the country illegally and told to pay an arbitrary fine. If they are unable to pay immediately, they are beaten or taken to a nearby border crossing and pushed into Afghanistan.
The human rights organization says that once the refugees are expelled into Afghanistan, most pay large sums of money to border guards to allow them to slip back into Pakistan, where their families are waiting for them.
Abbas Faiz, a spokesman for Amnesty International in London, says the harassment of Afghan refugees is systematic: "[There has been] systematic and arbitrary arrest of Afghans, intimidation, beating of the Afghans, forcing them to pay a bribe. And those who do not pay a bribe, they are taken to police stations and then from there they are taken to the border and then pushed over the border into Afghan territory."
"When Afghans are taken to the border, then on the other side of the border some Afghans actually find their way back into Pakistan. There is a lot of corruption, a lot of money which changes hands, and Afghan families are forced to really kind of buy a permission to return back to Pakistan."
Faiz says it is impossible to know the actual numbers of cases because the police keep no records of these arbitrary arrests and expulsions.
"The police do not write down the names of the Afghans they take to the police stations -- there is no record. If Afghans are kept in detention, no one knows about them. So it is very difficult to know exactly how many have been deported, but the information that we have [suggests] definitely hundreds, if not thousands. It is a government policy. The governor of the Northwest Frontier Province has several times stated that Afghans are not welcome in Pakistan anymore and this has been taken by the Pakistani police as a sanction for their abuse of power."
Afghan refugees themselves can relate hundreds of stories of detentions, beatings, and expulsions, either suffered firsthand or by neighbors. RFE/RL's Turkmen Service recently spoke to many ethnic Turkmen refugees from Afghanistan about their experiences.
One refugee, who has lived in Pakistan 18 years, told the Turkmen Service that he was detained recently in the Peshawar area and threatened with expulsion through the nearby border crossing of Torkham if he did not pay a bribe. The refugee asked for anonymity in telling his story:
"They picked me up and asked for a bribe and when I couldn't pay they took me to a police station. There was nowhere to sleep, nothing to eat and the police said that if you don't give money you'll go to [the border crossing at] Torkham. They said it doesn't matter if you have lived here 18 years, give us the money. I sent to my family for money and they brought it and then I was released after paying 200 rupees ($3). Others have paid 3,000 rupees ($47). I even showed them I have Pakistani documents and they said that doesn't mean anything."
Others have similar stories. Another ethnic Turkmen, a resident of Peshawar, told RFE/RL that his neighbor suffered the deaths of his two children and his wife as a result of his being detained and expelled from the country:
"My name is Doctor Rahmatullah and I live in Peshawar. My neighbor Allamurad's wife was sick and they took her to the hospital and he left his two children at home. On his way back from the hospital, the police picked him up and sent him to the border crossing at Torkham. After three days, he was able to return home and he found that both his children whom he had locked inside his house had died. He brought his wife home from the hospital and when she saw her children were dead the shock killed her, too."
Rahmatullah says that his neighbor has gone mad from grief and shows no signs of recovering his sanity.
Many ethnic Turkmen refugees in Pakistan say they fear returning to Afghanistan as long as fighting continues there. Turkmen refugees have contacted the government of Turkmenistan to learn if they can return instead to that country, their original homeland. But Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov, who shortly after Turkmenistan's independence encouraged all ethnic Turkmen to contribute to building the country, has since shown little enthusiasm for repatriation. Late last year, he said he does not want to interfere with refugees in other countries.
Amnesty International says that the Pakistani police appear to enjoy a free hand in deciding who should be arrested or deported. The human rights organization says that so far it has seen no statements from the Pakistani government saying that harassment of refugees at the hands of police must stop or promising any kind of measures to end the abuses.