Afghans dream of stepping out of the shadows with Pakistan ID scheme
Programme aims to provide up to one million undocumented Afghans with identity cards legalizing their stay in Pakistan.
PESHAWAR, Pakistan – An Afghan in Pakistan without papers, Mohammad Rehman has lived all his life in fear of arrest by the police and deportation to his conflict-torn homeland.
But a new Pakistan government programme to register up to one million undocumented Afghans like him, is finally allowing him to dream of stepping out of the shadows with a measure of security.
“I am feeling confident that I will have at least some sort of identity while in Pakistan,” says Rehman, who was born and raised in Pakistan to Afghan parents. “If the police arrest me now, at least I will be released without much trouble.”
The pilot programme launched on July 20 seeks to register undocumented Afghans living in the country, currently estimated between 600,000 to one million, many of whom have lived in Pakistan for nearly four decades and raised children there.
“I am feeling confident that I will have at least some sort of identity while in Pakistan.”
Under the scheme, thousands like Rehman will be issued with an Afghan Citizen, or AC, card providing legal protection from arbitrary arrest, detention or deportation under Pakistan’s Foreigner’s Act.
The six-month registration programme began with pilot projects in the country’s capital Islamabad and the north-western city of Peshawar, which hosts the largest number of undocumented Afghans. The programme is expected to roll out in all four provinces from August 16.
The push to issue the cards has been welcomed by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. It will allow Afghans to stay in Pakistan for the time being, until they can be issued documents such as passports, by the Government of Afghanistan.
“The initiative will bring much needed relief for many Afghan families where some were registered refugees, while others had no legal status,” UNHCR spokeswoman Duniya Aslam Khan told a news briefing in Geneva on Friday (July 21).
“It will help regularize the stay for many refugees at a time when return to their home country may not be possible,” she added.
The registration follows three years of consultations between the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan and UNHCR. It forms part of Pakistan’s Comprehensive Policy on the Voluntary Repatriation and Management of Afghans, which was endorsed by its cabinet in February this year.
"The initiative will bring much needed relief for many Afghan families."
Other components of the plan include: extending the validity of the Proof of Registration cards to some 1.4 million registered Afghans refugees until the end of 2017; a commitment to adopt a national refugee law; and a visa regime for different categories of Afghan refugees who have the Proof of Registration cards.
Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority, Ministry of States and Frontier Regions and the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation will oversee the project, with support from the International Organization for Migration, or IOM, and UNHCR.
UNHCR will assist IOM with an information campaign to reach Afghan communities living in Pakistan, as well as ensuring that Afghans with international protection needs are referred to UNHCR.
Aside from easing his fears of arrest, undocumented Afghan honey vendor Saleem Khan sees other benefits from the registration programme. He hopes that having a card will allow him to move more freely and access markets in the village of Mandi Bahuddin in Punjab, and, reduce his children’s fear of discrimination in school.
“My daughters were reluctant to attend the school as their teachers would bother them from time to time due to lack of documents. Police would stop us at every check post. After getting the card, we will be relieved,” he says.
Additional reporting by Qaisar Khan Afridi in Islamabad