NEW YORK - A prominent human rights watchdog group Sunday urged the Pakistani government to halt the stepped up repatriation of Afghan refugees in the wake of the horrific December 16 Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar, saying it has an obligation to protect all of them, including those not registered, from harassment and other abuse.

Human Rights Watch, the New York-based group, said the recent increase in Afghans repatriating from Pakistan appears related to ‘coercive pressure’ from local governments on Afghans to return to their country.

“Pakistani officials should not be scapegoating Afghans because of the Taliban’s atrocities in Peshawar,” Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “It is inhumane, not to mention unlawful, to return Afghans to places they may face harm and not protect them from harassment and abuse.”

Citing the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), HRW said nine times as many Afghan refugees were repatriated from Pakistan in January 2015 as in December 2014, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR). UNHCR analysis of the returns indicated that a significant percentage of these 3,829 returns were coercive, it said. Nearly all of the refugees returned from three provinces – Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Azad Kashmir, and Punjab – where an increase in arrests, detentions, and evictions of Afghans were reported during the same period.

Those registered as refugees possess Proof of Registration (PoR) issued by the Pakistani government, with the support of UNHCR. Although UNHCR reports a decrease in the number of PoR cardholders returning to Afghanistan since the last week of January 2015, International Organization for Migration (IOM) figures show a comparable rate of returns of undocumented Afghans in the first two weeks of February compared with January, HRW pointed out.

The overwhelming majority of Afghans who have left Pakistan since December 16, 2014, have not been formally deported, but are rather categorised as “spontaneous returns.” The IOM reported that more than 33,000 undocumented Afghans had “spontaneously returned” from Pakistan from the beginning of 2014 through the first two weeks of February 2015, a 155 percent increase from all spontaneous returns through the end of 2014.

The rate of spontaneous returns of undocumented Afghans increased from an average of 59 a day in 2014 to 749 in the first six weeks of 2015. An IOM official told Human Rights Watch that many of the unregistered Afghan returnees reported that they had left Pakistan to escape harassment following the Peshawar attack.

“Pakistan’s government is tarnishing the country’s well-deserved reputation for hospitality toward refugees by tolerating the punitive and potentially unlawful coercive repatriation of Afghan refugees,” Kine said. “The government needs to defend the rights of its Afghan population and ensure that local authorities aren’t carrying out vindictive reprisals for an atrocity the Afghan refugees bear no responsibility for.”