On October 3, Pakistan’s caretaker federal interior minister, Sarfaraz Bugti, announced that the country’s Apex Committee, comprising civilian and military leaders, had decided to set a one-month deadline for the “undocumented foreigners” living in Pakistan to leave the country. He announced that the government has set November 1 as the deadline for “illegal immigrants” (not registered in Pakistan) to leave the country or face arrest and deportation.
Although the Pakistani government says that the policy applies to all foreign nationals living illegally in Pakistan, it is widely understood to be targeting Afghan refugees. Afghans have fled Afghanistan in different periods due to decades of war and instability in their homeland, from the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 to the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul in 2021. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are over 4 million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan: 700,000 of them fled Afghanistan after 2021. Of the 4 million, 1.73 million are not officially registered and are considered illegal.
Afghans living in Pakistan have long faced harassment and racism at the hands of Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs), particularly the police. Authorities have subjected them to racial profiling, accusing them of crimes and terrorism, based on the country’s narrative of Afghan refugees as “economic burdens,” “criminals” and “terrorists.” It is not the first time that Afghan refugees are facing forced mass repatriation in the country. In 2016, more than half a million Afghans were forced to return back to Afghanistan. However, the recent announcement and subsequent actions are unprecedented and are feared to pave the way for a severe humanitarian crisis.
As the deadline approached, confusion, panic and fear have gripped the millions of Afghan refugees living in Pakistan. There was an unprecedented crackdown on Afghan refugees across the country. The government claims that over 200,000 refugees have left Pakistan “voluntarily” since the deadline was set, and thousands have been placed in refugee camps near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, from where they will be sent to Afghanistan.
LEAs in Pakistan, which have a long history of harassing, intimidating, and exhorting Afghan refugees began cracking down on Afghan refugees even before the deadline. An Afghan refugee, who decided to remain anonymous, based in the Pakistani metropolitan city of Karachi said, “Even before the deadline, the police got the opportunity to arrest Afghans regardless of if they have legal documents or not. There are raids on refugees’ homes and workplaces. Many Afghans have been fired from their jobs and forced to leave the homes and shops they have rented. With the increase in harassment, many refugees have confined themselves to their homes without earning their daily bread and butter.”
Sheerena, a 55-year-old mother of 5 sons and 3 daughters, came to Pakistan about 35 years ago during the Afghan-Soviet war. While being concerned about her sons, she said, “Despite having cards, there is a fear that my sons may be arrested and harassed as there are several such cases.”
“It is an absolute disaster,” said another Afghan refugee, who also preferred not to share their name. “There are families who do not have enough money to arrange their return to Afghanistan, many have sold their household and personal belongings or have asked the community for help to pay for their trip to Afghanistan.”
Somaiyah Hafeez, a journalist reporting from the ground at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, said, “Nothing but a cruel uncertainty awaits the Afghan refugees who are being deported. Many have never been to Afghanistan, were born and raised in Pakistan, and have no home in Afghanistan to return to.” She further added that “the government’s claim that 200,000 Afghan refugees left ‘voluntarily’ is untrue, it was the fear of an undignified crackdown and harassment that drove them to leave, and we can see this now as the government sends Afghan refugees back in containers. They are not only being thrown out, but they are being stripped of their dignity.”
Why has Pakistan adopted such a draconian policy, especially at a time when it is being run by a caretaker government whose job is to get the elections done? Analysts believe that the change in policy is a result of the deteriorating security condition in the country faced by resurging militancy. Pakistan is experiencing acute economic and political instability and a sharp increase in terrorist attacks following the victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan, particularly by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The TTP is the ideological equivalent of the Afghan Taliban and seeks to establish an Islamic Sharia-based system in Pakistan, much as the Taliban did in Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s security establishment has long had close ties with the Afghan Taliban, but relations have soured since the Taliban’s return to power. Pakistan accuses the Afghan Taliban of harboring TTP members and not taking any action to contrast it.
A journalist and a writer familiar with recent developments said on condition of anonymity that “the Pakistani establishment (mostly the military) has created this disaster itself. The rise of terrorism in Pakistan is due to its own flawed strategic policies and it is now scapegoating vulnerable refugees. The Pakistani authorities are using millions of Afghan refugees as a means to pressure the Afghan Taliban, whom they once called their strategic asset.”
Although Pakistan is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol, a tripartite agreement between Pakistan, the UNHCR and the Afghan government regulates Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
Local and international human rights groups and activists have condemned Pakistan’s draconian policy and called for a reversal of the decision. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) in a recent open letter to UNHCR has expressed deep concern over Pakistan’s decision to expel undocumented foreigners, affecting 1.7 million Afghans. The HRCP has called it a forced repatriation that will trigger a humanitarian crisis. UNHCR and IOM issued a joint statement saying, “Afghanistan is going through a severe humanitarian crisis with several human rights challenges, particularly for women and girls. Such plans would have serious implications for all who have been forced to leave the country and may face serious protection risks upon return.”
Given the Taliban’s rigid rule and the deteriorating economic situation in Afghanistan, there will be no safe and sustainable life for returning Afghans. Those who have spent years and decades in Pakistan will not have the protection and resources to live a normal life there. Rehan, while leaving Pakistan after spending 40 years there, said, “I grew up here, but now the government is throwing us away. I am leaving because I do not want to be harassed by the authorities. I have no idea what I will do in Afghanistan, whether I will find work or not. I did not make a fortune here, but at least I could afford two meals a day.”
The impact on women and girls will be far greater. “Pakistan is knowingly sending Afghan girls and women to a country where they have no rights to education, work, and public spaces,” said Hafeez. Many of those who fled Afghanistan after 2021 are artists, activists, journalists, and those who have worked for Western governments and organizations, and they are at high risk of being persecuted by the Afghan Taliban.
Cover photo: Afghan refugees arrive on trucks for their deportation to Afghanistan, at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in Chaman on November 4, 2023. (Photo by Banaras KHAN / AFP.)
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