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EFSAS Commentary

Exodus of Afghan refugees | Pakistan is using poor and vulnerable Afghans as pawns against the Taliban regime


In a move driven ostensibly by security concerns due to a rise in terrorist attacks, Pakistan on 1 November launched a crackdown on undocumented immigrants, mostly Afghan refugees, resulting in a mass exodus. Pakistani authorities said that sweeps by security personnel were conducted in the port city of Karachi, the garrison city of Rawalpindi, and in various areas in the southwestern Baluchistan and northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces, which border Afghanistan. According to the United Nations (UN) agencies, there are more than 2 million undocumented Afghans in Pakistan, at least 600,000 of who fled after the Taliban takeover in 2021. This latter group is likely to still be highly vulnerable in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Nevertheless, Pakistan’s new deportation policy, which discounts the widely-accepted notions of propriety and human rights, has further strained relations with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and raised international concerns, especially among aid and human right organizations.

Pakistan’s Interior Ministry had announced last month that all foreign nationals living in the country without legal status had 28 days to leave voluntarily or face deportation, with November 1 being set as the last day for undocumented immigrants to leave. In response to this announcement, there has been a surge of Afghan refugees heading towards the border crossings, desperately seeking to return to Afghanistan to evade potential deportation. The exodus was particularly noticeable in Karachi’s Sohrab Goth area, one of Pakistan’s largest Afghan settlements. Some of the Afghans who have been ordered to leave have spent decades in Pakistan, while some have never even been to Afghanistan. Of the more than 4 million Afghans living in Pakistan, the Pakistani government estimates 1.7 million are undocumented. Afghans have migrated to neighbouring Pakistan over decades of conflict during the Soviet invasion, the following civil war, and the United States (US)-led campaign after 9/11.

According to the Pakistan government, in the last two months around 200,000 Afghan nationals have already left Pakistan ahead of the 1 November deadline. The Taliban’s refugee ministry spokesman Abdul Mutaleb Haqqani said that the recent daily returnee figures are three times higher than normal. A commissioner for Pakistan’s Khyber Tribal District said more than 24,000 Afghans had crossed out of the country using the Torkham border crossing on Wednesday alone, but Aid agencies have warned that conditions in the Taliban-run country are “dire”, with temporary camps being prepared.

Describing the disturbing scenes that are today playing out at the border crossings, the BBC’s Pakistan correspondent Caroline Davies wrote, “You know you are getting closer to the border when the stream of trucks thickens. Faces old and young watch the road, sitting atop piles of furniture, firewood, cookers and air conditioning units that judder precariously as the vehicles weave through traffic on their way to Afghanistan. We meet Abdullah at a petrol station in Punjab province. He has hired a truck to bring all 22 of his family members out of the country - 20 of them were born in Pakistan, he says. ‘I initially came here when the Russian war started, I used to work in a brick kiln as a labourer. There are fewer job opportunities in Afghanistan’, he tells the BBC. ‘I am very sad about leaving my house. I can’t express in words the pain I felt leaving it. Our house was made of mud, and we built it ourselves. I planted many trees there. My neighbours and friends were in tears [when I left] – It’s the cruel government that is making us leave’”. Davies also spoke to Abdullah’s inconsolable wife, who lamented, “We have nothing. We didn’t do anything wrong; we used to work as labour and feed the family”.

As these scenes were playing out, Pakistan started to arrest Afghans as the country began its nationwide crackdown on Wednesday. The Pakistani government has said that the first wave of deportations would target only those without any documentation. However, there has been a stream of incidents in which people have been targeted despite having an Afghan Citizen Card - an ID issued by the Pakistan government. The Pakistan government’s own website explicitly says that this counts as an official document. Abdullah, for example, told Davies that the police raided his house and arrested his sons despite him holding a valid Afghan Citizen Card. He added, “The government says to go back, even though we have these cards. This level of problem has never happened in the past”.

Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, which pointed out that because of considerable delays in the registration process many new arrivals in Pakistan have not been able to obtain recognized identity documents, have severely criticized Islamabad’s deportation policy. Urging the Pakistan government to reverse its decision, human rights groups have said that women and girls in particular would be put in “grave danger” if they returned. The UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) expressed concern that certain groups of people, including minorities, journalists and women, could be at greater risk. Also, Afghanistan was pushed into economic collapse when the Taliban took over in 2021, and foreign funds that were being given to the previous regime were frozen. The unemployment rate more than doubled from the period immediately before the Taliban takeover to June 2023, according to the World Bank. UN agencies say around two-thirds of the Afghan population is in need of humanitarian aid. Philippa Candler, UNHCR representative in Pakistan, pointed out that “We’ve just had the earthquake which is impacting heavily on the situation in Afghanistan, and on top of that, winter is approaching so it’s not the best season to have people going back to a country that is already in a very fragile situation. We certainly don’t want to see a worsening of the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan as a result of large numbers of people being forced to return”.

Despite the criticism, Pakistan’s government has decided to forge ahead. Last week its Interior Minister announced plans to open centers around the country to help process detainees before deportation, saying that the elderly, children and women would be treated with extra care. The government has insisted on its rights to follow its own laws, and a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman sought to highlight Pakistan’s “record of the last forty years in hosting millions of our Afghan brothers and sisters”, which she claimed “speaks for itself”. Pakistan is not a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention and its 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, instead, governing the entry and presence of refugees under the country’s Foreigner’s Act that grants authorities the right to apprehend, detain, and expel foreigners, including refugees and asylum seekers lacking valid documentation.

The Pakistani crackdown has also worried those thousands of Afghans in Pakistan who are waiting for relocation to the US under a special refugee program since fleeing the Taliban takeover. US rules stipulated that these Afghans first had to relocate to a third country, in this case Pakistan, for their applications to be processed. Most of the Afghans awaiting relocation had worked for the US government, non-government organizations and media organizations in the years before the Taliban returned to power and they fled fearing persecution at home. On 31 October, a US official said that Washington’s priority was to facilitate the safe and efficient resettlement and relocation in the US of more than 25,000 eligible Afghans who are presently in Pakistan.

Afghans awaiting relocation to the United Kingdom (UK) faced a similar predicament. Holly Bancroft, The Independent’s Social Affairs Correspondent, informed that when Pakistani authorities began their crackdown, Afghan families waiting in Pakistani hotels to be relocated to the UK were warned by the British Foreign Office to hide indoors. One message forwarded to the Afghan families from British Foreign Office officials read: “You will be aware the GoP (Government of Pakistan) are arresting, detaining and deporting those with no legal status in Pakistan, please do not take unnecessary risks by leaving your hotel”. What the US, the UK, and other similarly placed Western countries have been doing for these stranded and vulnerable Afghans over the past two-and-a-quarter years since the Taliban took power is a question that many may conceivably ask.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on 1 November that Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was “very concerned about this forced movement of people” and would like Pakistan “not to go through with this”. Pakistan’s interim Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti responded by posting on X that “Today, we said goodbye to 64 Afghan nationals as they began their journey back home. This action is a testament to Pakistan’s determination to repatriate any individuals residing in the country without proper documentation”. He had earlier said there “will be no compromise against illegal refugees”, and that “We have the data on who are staying illegally in Pakistan. We are going door to door, and we have done geofencing. We will detain and deport them. We have arrested dozens across the country so far, including in the capital”.

The Taliban regime has termed Pakistan’s decision to deport Afghan nationals as “unacceptable”. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid posted on X that “The behaviour of Pakistan towards Afghan refugees is unacceptable. Afghan refugees are not involved in Pakistan’s security problems”. Without naming Pakistan, Mujahid also urged host countries “to stop forcefully deporting Afghan refugees” and practice “tolerance based on Islamic and neighborly manners”. In response to Pakistani minister Sarfraz Bugti’s allegations that Afghan nationals had carried out 14 out of the 24 suicide bombings that occurred in Pakistan this year, Abdul Mutalib Haqqani, spokesman for the Taliban’s refugees and repatriation ministry stressed to the AFP news agency that “We deny all these claims because Afghans have migrated to other countries for their safety, their security. It’s natural when someone migrates to another country for his safety, he would never want insecurity there”. The deportations can now be expected to add another thick layer of complexity to the already intricate relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban.

As mentioned before, the Pakistani move has generated concerns in the UN and among human rights organizations. The UNHCR has warned that the deportation policy could trigger a “human rights catastrophe”. Human Right Watch has accused Pakistan of resorting to “threats, abuse, and detention to coerce Afghan asylum seekers without legal status” to return to Afghanistan. Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Senior Director, asserted on 31 October that “Amnesty International strongly reiterates its call to the Government of Pakistan to immediately reverse its decision to forcibly deport unregistered Afghan refugees ahead of the deadline set for tomorrow. Pakistan must meet its international legal obligations including the principle of non-refoulement and stop the crackdown against, and harassment of, Afghan refugees across the country. Afghan refugees’ lives and rights are at stake due to the collective failure of the Pakistan Government and the international community to share the responsibility for their protection. This is simply unacceptable”. She added, “There is still time for Pakistan to act swiftly today to avoid creating a crisis where families are rendered homeless, denied access to livelihood and basic services and separated in the lead up to the harsh winter months”.

Meanwhile, three aid organizations, the Norwegian Refugee Council, the Danish Refugee Council and the International Rescue Committee informed that many people fleeing Pakistan’s crackdown were arriving in Afghanistan in poor condition. The agencies said in a joint statement that “The conditions in which they arrive in Afghanistan are dire, with many having endured arduous journeys spanning several days, exposed to the elements, and often forced to part with their possessions in exchange for transportation”. The agencies said they feared for people’s survival and reintegration into Afghan society.

Pakistan has quoted the upsurge in terror attacks that the country is reeling from as the reason for mercilessly throwing out Afghan refugees. The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Pakistani Taliban, in particular, has been cited as an organization that enjoys the Taliban’s support in Afghanistan. When the Taliban seized control of Kabul, Islamabad had hoped that the new rulers, who Pakistani had created and propped up, would quell the TTP militants’ ability to launch terror attacks within Pakistan from their Afghan hideouts. However, these hopes were dashed as the TTP not only remained active, but also gained fresh momentum following the Taliban’s victory. The surge in TTP activities heightened insecurity in Pakistan’s northwestern and southwestern regions bordering Afghanistan.

Many, including the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), believe that Pakistan’s terror-related accusation against Afghan refugees is just an excuse. They insist that the poor refugees should not have to bear the price for Pakistan’s inability to secure itself. The HRCP stressed in a statement that “most of these refugees are likely poor, vulnerable individuals who should be provided access to legal counsel immediately”. It added, “Their status as unauthorised refugees does not mean they are not entitled to protection, nor should they bear the brunt of Pakistan’s security concerns. The next government must seriously consider signing the 1951 Geneva Convention and its 1967 Protocol relating to the status of refugees”.

Pakistan, whose military establishment has promoted and sponsored cross-border terrorism as an instrument of State policy through most of the country’s existence, should not now be allowed to use hundreds of thousands of very poor and highly vulnerable Afghan refugees, who have literally nothing to do with terrorism, as dispensable pawns just to pressurize the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.