ISLAMABAD, 31 January (IRIN) - The
office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has
expressed deep concern over the arrest of some 270 Afghan refugees over
the past week in the city of Rawalpindi in Pakistan's Punjab Province.
"We have written expressing concern to the authorities and have been
in touch with them in the provincial capital, Lahore," spokesman for
UNHCR in the capital, Islamabad, Jack Redden told IRIN on Friday.
"They were all arrested under the foreigners act," he said, adding that lawyers from legal advice centres run by the agency had appealed for their release from a jail in Rawalpindi where they were being held. "The court dates for the appeals have been set," he explained.
Staff from the legal centres have also been visiting the families of the refugees, who are now living in fear. "We understand that there is considerable fear within the refugee community and people are afraid to go out into the streets now in case they are detained," he said.
Meanwhile, government officials in Islamabad maintained that the refugees were staying the country illegally and that this was the reason for them being detained. "Many of them don't hold proper documents," an official at the interior ministry who did not want to be named told IRIN.
Diplomats at the Afghan embassy in Islamabad have also expressed concern and are taking up the issue with the Pakistani authorities. Afghans in Rawalpindi sent a petition to the embassy on 25 January complaining of increased harassment from the police.
Pakistan has been home to some 3.3 million Afghan refugees since the Soviet invasion of 1979, according to government statistics, of which more than one million have now returned home.
This latest incident is one of the the largest round-up of Afghans. In May 2002, some 400 refugees were arrested following a shooting in which two policemen were killed. "We are not sure what the reason was for the latest arrests, but we are following it at the highest levels," Redden said.
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