KARACHI: Fazal Haq was ecstatic to hear his lawyer’s voice on the other side of the phone last month, telling him that the court had ruled favorably in a case he had filed to get Pakistani citizenship.
On October 20, Islamabad High Court (IHC) Chief Justice Athar Minallah said a person born in Pakistan only required a birth certificate to be called a Pakistani and citizenship was his or her right, bringing into the spotlight the plight of millions of Afghan refugees living in the South Asian nation and raising hopes that they could finally become citizens.
Haq, 24, who was born and raised in Pakistan and has never even visited Afghanistan, is among millions of Afghans whose families were uprooted from their home country due to war and insurrection. The refugees have long complained about constant harassment due to the lack of citizenship rights even for those who have spent decades living and working in Pakistan.
After knocking on the doors of the relevant government ministries and departments for years, Haq said he finally took his citizenship plea to the Islamabad High Court as a last option.
“It was the most exciting day of my life,” Haq told Arab News over the phone from the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar, speaking about Justice Minallah’s ruling.
“For a moment, I couldn’t believe it. But then I realized that I had achieved a huge milestone.”
The IHC chief justice’s words have given hope to at least 2.15 million Afghan refugees, including 1.3 million registered and 0.85 million unregistered Afghans, who live in Pakistan, according to the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR. After the Taliban takeover of the war-battered country in August 2021, at least 250,000 additional Afghans took shelter in neighboring Pakistan.
But even after the court ruling, Haq said he was still waiting for his citizenship application to be processed by the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA).
At the last hearing, Justice Minallah said Pakistani law allowed citizenship to every child born in the country, ordering the interior ministry to complete the legal process in the case by Oct. 28, and submit a report.
NADRA’s counsel had assured the court at the time that the application filed by Haq was being processed.
A follow-up hearing was not held.
Yawar Hussain, director general of Immigration and Passport (IMPASS) at the ministry of interior, told Arab News the government would file an appeal against the IHC decision with the Supreme Court.
A NADRA spokesperson said IMPASS was the competent authority to grant citizenship, whereas NADRA merely registered and issued Computerized National Identity Cards (CNICs) to verified citizens.
The NADRA spokesperson said the authority was required to follow the law, which necessitated that all citizens had to be registered with NADRA.
“Once a citizen has got himself registered and has attained the age of 18 years, then pursuant to Section 10 of the Ordinance, the citizen shall be entitled to a National Identity Card,” he explained.
He said NADRA had not received any directions from the interior ministry in Haq’s case, but the chairman of NADRA had taken the initiative to approach the ministry for guidance on the subject.
Haq’s lawyer, Umer Ijaz Gilani, said he would file a contempt of court petition if the interior ministry and NADRA failed to comply with the IHC judgment.
“This is a landmark decision and will help those who were born here but denied citizenship rights,” Gilani said.
“In the absence of that right, people are deprived of education, basic facilities and thus a reasonable life.”
According to the Pakistani legal system, anyone born in Pakistan is eligible to be a citizen, with the exception of the children of foreign diplomats or enemy aliens.
Many experts say the Pakistan Citizenship Act, 1951 is unambiguous while dealing with the subject and does not exclude refugee children.
Syed Nadeem Farhat, an Islamabad-based researcher and expert on citizenship law, said other than children of international diplomats and enemy aliens, Pakistani legal provisions recognized that children of foreign parents could become citizens.
“Otherwise, these exceptions would have been unnecessary,” he added.
In 2018, the IHC granted citizenship to Saeed Abdi Mahmud, a man born to Somali parents in Pakistan, Farhat added.
While both the earlier IHC and Peshawar High Court (PHC) judgments agreed that a refugee could not be considered jus soli (birthright citizen), Farhat said last month’s judgment by the IHC offered a clear and more prudent interpretation of the citizenship law.
To take the matter forward, he called on the Supreme Court or parliament to give “detailed consideration” to the issue as millions of refugees and immigrants had lived in the country for decades and were raising their second or third generations here without access to fundamental rights.
Meanwhile, Haq said he hoped his effort to get citizenship would not be in vain for him and for other Afghans living in Pakistan.
“Pakistan is my country,” he said. “I was born and raised here and will live in this country till my last breath. I deserve to be called a proud Pakistani.”