8 July 2023′
An estimated 600,000 Afghans have fled into Pakistan since the Taliban ascension to power in Afghanistan in 2021. At least 2.2 million unrecognized.1 Afghans now live in Pakistan without legal status or protection in the country, in addition to at least 1.32 million registered and recognized Afghan refugees, many of whom have been in the country for decades. A considerable portion of the recent arrivals are women and girls who fled targeted threats and a general stripping away of their rights in Afghanistan. The unregistered Afghans – unable to obtain legal status in Pakistan but unable to safely return to Afghanistan – present a growing but officially unacknowledged dimension of the Afghan refugee crisis. Meanwhile U.S. commitments made two years ago to resettle Afghans via P-1 and P-2 resettlement programs remain stalled due to Pakistan-U.S. policy disagreements – even as other countries have been successfully resettling some Afghans out of Pakistan. This paper outlines potential solutions to break the apparent impasse and begin taking measures to protect vulnerable Afghans in Pakistan.
Although the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is fenced and guarded, the Pakistani authorities often turn a blind eye to Afghans entering Pakistan undocumented or with visas purchased on the black market. Pakistani authorities are unwilling to record even basic information about these hundreds of thousands of recent Afghan arrivals. This neglect and lack of official recognition leaves these unacknowledged refugees insecure.
The situation is particularly frustrating and precarious for Afghans at risk of reprisals from the Taliban. Ample reporting has documented the Taliban targeting human rights defenders, women’s rights activists, former Afghan government officials, members of the Afghan military, LGBTQ+ people, ethnic minorities, and others. The Taliban continue to issue increasingly draconian restrictions on women’s participation in public life in Afghanistan, culminating with the most recent bans on women working for non-governmental organizations, and even the United Nations. That, coupled with a worsening humanitarian situation, has left many Afghans who fled to Pakistan since 2021 with no good options and certainly no possibility of returning to Afghanistan anytime soon.
An estimated 20,000 of the 600,000 newly arrived Afghans in Pakistan have referrals for resettlement to the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) through Priority 1 (P-1) and Priority 2 (P-2) categories. P-1 is for people “known” by the former U.S. Embassy in Kabul and referred by a U.S. official for resettlement. P-2, a new program the State Department announced in the beginning of August 2021, is for Afghans who worked for a U.S.-based NGO or media organization that refers them. To be processed for resettlement, these individuals must be outside of Afghanistan. It is possible to resettle those people whose cases meet the criteria and pass security and medical checks. But, despite the fact that many of these individuals spent their careers working alongside people from the U.S. mission—who have similar goals for human rights and democracy in Afghanistan—the United States has not begun processing their cases due to an apparent stalemate with Pakistan over how to process them.
Nearly two years after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the promise of the P-1 and P-2 resettlement programs in Pakistan have gone unfulfilled. The State Department explains that resettlement from Pakistan is at a standstill because the Pakistani government will not permit the establishment of a Resettlement Support Center (RSC) in the country. The government of Pakistan is reportedly concerned that this could encourage more Afghans to enter Pakistan. The United States indicates that an RSC in-country is a requirement for the movement of cases out of Pakistan.
Yet, there are alternatives that the United States could pursue that could allow resettlement to continue while the United States and Pakistan are engaged in bilateral negotiations over the establishment of an RSC. The State Department has been tight-lipped about precisely why it has suspended all resettlement referrals while other countries are still managing to resettle small numbers of cases from Pakistan. The United States must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good; if there are any means of continuing resettlement while RSC negotiations continue, those must be maintained. The complete lack of resettlement to the United States from Pakistan and lack of clarity on any progress towards that goal is unacceptable and dangerous for Afghans. To date, the United States is failing to live up to the commitments it made to protect Afghans through its P-1 and P-2 programs.
This report outlines the overall landscape for Afghan refugees in Pakistan and the conditions they face. It focuses heavily on Afghans who have fled to Pakistan since August 2021, especially women and girls who cannot return to Afghanistan but face risks and challenges in Pakistan. The report urges the Pakistani government to expand protection and services to all Afghans in their territory and allow the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and NGOs to assist all Afghans, not just recognized legacy refugees. The report also highlights obstacles to processing P-1 and P-2 cases and potential solutions to alleviate them. Afghans with P-1 and P-2 referrals constitute a manageable caseload. The U.S. government gave them hope of resettlement, and they are already in the resettlement “pipeline.” They have no rights in Pakistan and are at risk of deportation back to Afghanistan, where they could be killed. Therefore, the United States should shift its processes to consider all possible options to support Afghans seeking safety, even if an RSC cannot be established.
The government of Pakistan should:
- Become a signatory to the Refugee Convention and develop corresponding national asylum and refugee legislation that provides a framework for receiving, registering, hosting, and integrating refugees.
- Register undocumented Afghans and provide them with Proof of Registration (PoR) cards that would offer them greater freedom of movement and access to public education, healthcare, and bank accounts. Registration would enable more effective assistance to all Afghans and facilitate the resettlement of Afghans to other countries.
- Allow the UNHCR and NGOs access to all Afghans in Pakistan, including new arrivals and currently undocumented individuals.
- Permit the United States to establish an RSC in Pakistan. If necessary, authorize a temporary RSC to operate for an agreed-upon time frame, such as three to five years. Allow enough time for the United States to process P-1 and P-2 cases in Pakistan that already have assigned case numbers.
- Provide exit permits for Afghans to leave Pakistan for resettlement processing to the United States through other sites such as Camp As Sayliyah (CAS) in Doha, Qatar.
The United States government should:
- Consider alternate RSC models if agreement cannot be reached to establish one in Pakistan. A regional RSC, potentially in Tajikistan or Nepal, could serve Afghans in South and Central Asia, including those in Pakistan. While Pakistan may object to a larger U.S. government footprint within Islamabad, a regional RSC could still begin processing cases.
- Utilize the CAS model of specialized, concurrent processing for any new RSC to improve efficiency. This would ensure staff from all the relevant U.S. agencies are in one location and complete processing steps at one time rather than sequentially.
- Conduct initial United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) interviews with Afghan refugees in host countries virtually to further expedite processing.
- While setting up an RSC, immediately prioritize processing resettlement cases of at-risk Afghan women with P-1 or P-2 cases in Islamabad by relocating them temporarily to CAS or elsewhere. The United States can use these initial groups of women and their families as test cases from which the United States can grow a more extensive program.
- Utilize the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad to process small numbers of cases within Pakistan. This would ensure some cases are processed while also being discreet, alleviating some of the government of Pakistan’s concerns.
- Communicate more consistently and clearly with Afghans in Pakistan with pending P-1 and P-2 cases about the current state of their individual cases.
- Provide clear and accessible public information about the overall state of the Afghan USRAP program, including processing times, approval rates, and a gender breakdown of applicants. This information will allow policymakers to increase oversight, improve efficacy, and guide additional resources to different pathways.
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Pakistan should:
- Press the government of Pakistan to register and recognize undocumented Afghans by issuing them Proof of Registration (PoR) cards. UNHCR should provide technical support, financial support, and capacity building to the government of Pakistan to undertake this effort.
- Expand refugee-focused services outside of refugee villages to urban areas where they can serve additional undocumented refugees with services such as livelihoods programs, educational programs, and mental health and psychosocial support programs.
- Meet with Afghans who entered Pakistan since August 2021 to assess their living conditions, document their protection concerns, and work with NGO partners to develop programs tailored to their needs.
International donors should:
- Increase financial support to the UN’s Afghanistan Situation Regional Refugee Response Plan (RRP) and UNHCR Pakistan so that UN agencies and their partners can address the needs of the growing numbers of Afghans in the country. Require that some of the funding support the government of Pakistan’s Commissionerate for Afghan Refugees and be used for programs that target undocumented Afghans, especially new arrivals.
- Provide flexible funding for humanitarian aid to Pakistan to encompass assistance to newly arrived refugees in urban areas and support local NGOs.
- Press the government of Pakistan to allow registration of all Afghan refugees and issuance of PoR cards so that they are afforded rights and can more easily access NGO and UN agencies services.