Female refugees: victims twice over

  • Dr Momina Talib and Hamza Latif
  • Nov 03, 2023

The sun rises, and with it dawns a new month — November is here. The deadline for the voluntary return of ‘illegal’ Afghan immigrants to Afghanistan has ended, and it has come amid news signalling that the UNHCR was not wrong in its warning to Pakistan.

The agency predicted that attempting to repatriate 1.7 million refugees against international customary principles could have catastrophic consequences for the civilians forced to partake in this exodus. Already, avoidable deaths of Afghan refugees have been reported at the Torkham border. People forced to leave the country in containers have been injured and have lost their lives when a container overturned.

Children have been falling sick every day due to the conditions under which they have to migrate, where hygiene and even proper nutrition take backstage as a priority amongst the refugees’ rush to cross the border before they face any more harassment from the Pakistani authorities.

Forced to leave behind most of their assets including livestock, and only being allowed to carry a mere Rs 50,000 per family across the border, the majority of these ‘illegal’ Afghan refugees had already been barely scraping by to make ends meet and lived too close to the poverty line for comfort. To then take away what little they had, before forcing them out into a country still facing the economic effects of international sanctions along with a recent natural disaster, with winter almost at the door is doubtlessly inhumane, and downright cruel when one factors that many of these refugees have been here for the better part of four decades.

Often they are second-generation immigrants with families of their own now, who have never known a home other than Pakistan. Regardless, the powers that be have decided to racially profile all Afghan refugees in Pakistan to frame them singularly as the scapegoat for the country’s economic downturn and instability, and expose them to face what is now de facto state-sanctioned harassment regardless of the legality of their stay in the country.

Additionally, a portion of these ‘illegal’ refugees are those who fled after the “Fall of Kabul” to Pakistan, often planning on staying here only long enough to get their visas to the US, the UK, or other countries — a process that could use some serious expedition on the issuing country’s end.

These undocumented refugees and asylum seekers have been unable to get registered due to Proof of Registration (PoRs) no longer being issued or their visa renewals being rejected by Pakistan.

Offering refugees few chances of obtaining the paperwork they require for staying in the country legally and sending them back to a country where they not only have to suffer due to lack of resources but could also possibly face violence due to their work before the Taliban came into power is against international law’s customary principles such as that of non-refoulement.

While all of this is inhumane, the bigger problem is the utter lack of concern for the rights of women and girls, who make up at least half of these refugees. According to UNHCR, 47% of all registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan are female, and 72% of these refugees are women and children. Accurate demographical data is difficult to get a hold of in the case of undocumented immigrants, however, it can be safe to assume that a good chunk, if not over half of those, are also female refugees.

It is no new knowledge for anyone that under the Taliban regime in the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, women’s rights have been set back decades, bringing the state of affairs back to what it was during the Taliban’s last term in power. With no opportunity for education or skill acquisition anymore, women have been largely driven out of the workforce. This leaves them direly dependent on men to survive.

Add to that restriction of movement without a male guardian, exclusion from the political and judicial systems, poverty, and limited resources, and the result is girls in Afghanistan being married off at younger and younger ages. The subsequent public health nightmare that then occurs begins with increased rates of both maternal and neonatal mortality, and spirals further towards worse consequences, including the toll on the mental health of women and girls that living under such situations would bring.

Down another path, one sees the likelihood of increased gender-based violence as the culmination of all these restrictions on women.

For women-headed households, which make up 22.5% of registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan, these conditions would make their lives, and those of their dependents, difficult to maintain, and a widow with no male offspring or relations would find that her survival has become very difficult indeed.

In Pakistan, as refugees, whether registered or undocumented, these people still had a fighting chance at survival. Girls had access to education at the very least, an opportunity no longer available to them in Afghanistan.

While finding employment might have been difficult at times, the possibility of being able to work existed freely for these women while they stayed in Pakistan. On the other side of the border, what most likely awaits all female refugees being ‘repatriated’ under the government’s current measures is a life of faceless anonymity with their roles in life being reduced to household duties only, and this is the optimistic scenario.

For women previously working in Afghanistan before the Fall of Kabul, escaping to Pakistan was in some cases a necessity to preserve their lives, which were under threat not only from the Taliban but also from their relatives.

To force these women back to their home country under such conditions is no less than signing their death warrants, and their blood, should anything happen to them, would unanimously be on Pakistan’s hands.

For the government to dehumanize refugees, particularly so women, and double down on their plans to empty the country of undocumented refugees regardless of what awaits them back in Afghanistan despite international appeals for the opposite is highly demoralizing to see.

Women’s rights in Pakistan are already compromised, but this mistreatment and indifference to the plight of female refugees seem to be alarming indicators of the government’s lack of concern regarding the rights of women and girls.

As a country host to refugees, women’s rights for the state do go beyond the rights of women citizens only. Pakistan cannot deny its responsibility in this regard, and any attempts to do so is clear complicity and facilitation in the oppression of women.


Dr Momina Talib and Hamza Latif

Dr Momina Talib writes on global affairs and can be reached on X at @MominaTalib. Hamza Latif is a writer and can be reached at @HamzaLatifSays

You May Also Like