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"Rescue us," beg Afghan refugee families as they protest their "slum life" in a Pakistani park

Humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan worsening
Humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan expected to worsen in 2022 02:41

Islamabad, Pakistan — Until about a year ago, Merhia Baraki was a makeup artist for Afghanistan's state-run television network. CBS News met her Tuesday in a park in Pakistan's capital, as she tried to squeeze herself and her two young children under a shelter to escape a monsoon downpour. Baraki's family has been living in the park in a wealthy corner of Islamabad since she lost her job when the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan in August 2021.

As unregistered refugees, Baraki and her husband don't have any income, so they can't rent a proper home.

"We live here under scorching heat and heavy rains, using the plastic sheet as shelter. We have lost everything with return of the Taliban," she told CBS News as yet another seasonal downpour soaked her clothes.  

Merhia and Fahim Baraki, center, sprinkle water on their son in the midday heat of Islamabad, Pakistan, June 20, 2022, during a protest by hundreds of Afghan refugee families demanding legal status as asylum seekers. CBS/Sami Yousafzai

A senior official at Pakistan's Ministry of Interior tasked with handling refugees told CBS News the country had "restricted visas and the border, but despite this, around 250,000 Afghans crossed into Pakistan" after the Taliban seized full control of the country next door.

"We already carry the burden of 3 million legal and illegal Afghan refugees in Pakistan, we could not afford any more refugees, and those 250,000 who entered mostly after the Taliban takeover are illegal," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "They came to Pakistan on dangerous smuggling routes or visit visas, but are now claiming asylum here."  

The Interior Ministry official told CBS News that by the Pakistani government's count, some 450 Afghan families are living in the Islamabad park. They have held protests for months demanding legal status, with many seeking onward passage to European nations.

The protests have seen families, including small children, carrying mock coffins and wearing white shirts emblazoned with messages in red paint demanding that officials "kill us or rescue us," meant to highlight the stark conditions they're living in.  

Fahim Baraki stands with his daughter as his son gestures during a protest in Islamabad, Pakistan, June 20, 2022, held by his family and hundreds of other Afghan refugees demanding legal status as asylum seekers. The word "kill" on their shirts is part of a slogan adopted by the refugees, who say the world should "kill us or rescue us" from their makeshift camp in the Pakistani capital. CBS/Sami Yousafzai

"After I participated in a demonstration against the Taliban on January 20, the Taliban fighters raided my house, but by then I had already left the house for Pakistan with my five children," Zuhra Wahidi, another Afghan refugee at the park, told CBS News on Tuesday. "Now we live here, in such a slum life with no food, water and a lack of sanitation, under the open sky."

The majority of the 450 families — more than 1,500 people in total — in makeshift shelters in Islamabad are relatively young, and many are well educated. Many had worked in Afghanistan's manufacturing and services industries.

Since the collapse of the U.S.-backed government and the reinstallation of a hardline Taliban regime, however, Afghanistan's economy has collapsed, and the Islamist rulers have told many female workers their services are no longer required. The changes have driven an exodus to Pakistan and other neighboring nations.

Afghan women TV presenters cover faces after new Taliban rule 01:04

Children, as ever, are among the hardest hit. None of the kids sheltering in the Islamabad park are enrolled in schools. Instead, they spend their days dodging rain and heat, wearing oversized shirts with grim slogans and holding protest signs demanding help from the international community.

"This is what we are after the Taliban capture of Kabul and the poorly executed American withdrawal from Afghanistan," Baraki's husband Fahim told CBS News. "The international community should rescue us. I find it abhorrent seeing kids dressed as coffins and wearing such t-shirts, but this does reflect our situation."

Pakistan is hosting around 1.3 million registered Afghan refugees, but there are an estimated 1.5 million more Afghans in the country without legal status, which includes the 250,000 the government says have arrived since the Taliban's August 2021 takeover.

Fahim Baraki, second from right, and his children join other Afghan refugees in a protest march held by hundreds of refugee families to demand legal status as asylum seekers, in Islamabad, Pakistan, June 20, 2022. CBS/Sami Yousafzai

Pakistan has been supported by the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, since 1980, with help to provide protection and assistance to Afghan and other refugees in the country.

"We are currently discussing with the government of Pakistan the way forward on registration and documentation of asylum-seekers, predominantly from Afghanistan," UNHCR Pakistan spokesperson Qaiser Khan Afridi told CBS News. "I would like to appreciate and acknowledge the people and government of Pakistan for hosting Afghan refugees for over 40 years and giving them free access to basic facilities such as health and education." 

But clearly more support is needed urgently, as the hundreds of Afghans living in the Islamabad park aren't getting any help yet. And as the Taliban's hold on Afghanistan looks unlikely to loosen any time soon, more people are fleeing the country every day.

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