For decades Pakistan has threatened to deport its undocumented Afghan refugees, many of whom arrived as much as 40 years ago, or who were born and raised in Pakistan. Some Afghans have in the past agreed to repatriation when offered material incentives provided by international aid organizations. But Islamabad has never undertaken a campaign to oust Afghans on anything like the scale now underway. Whether voluntarily or through force, Pakistan’s interim administration, backed by the senior military leadership, seems determined to rapidly uproot 1.7 million of the estimated 3.5 million Afghans believed to be in the country, most of whom are settled in Pakistan’s northwest Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province and the nation’s largest city, Karachi. The government’s decision comes at a terrible time given the conditions in Afghanistan and the feared humanitarian impact. It is a deportation policy driven in no small part by a security dispute with the Taliban regime in which Afghan refugees have become victims.
Pakistan’s interim government had set Nov. 1 as the deadline for the refugees to leave or face imprisonment and deportation. Reportedly, over 170,000 had done so voluntarily by that date. With the deadline now passed, Pakistani police and other authorities have initiated a nationwide operation, detaining thousands of undocumented Afghan immigrants and seizing their properties and businesses. The returning families are prohibited from taking with them more than 50,000 rupees or approximately $176. Included among those slated for deportation are an estimated 600,000 who arrived in Pakistan since the Taliban takeover in August 2021. These individuals have reason to fear state persecution or other hardships because of their prior connections with the deposed Afghan government, especially if they served in the late Republic’s security forces. Those once employed by American and other NATO forces may also be in danger of persecution by the Taliban or face various other forms of discrimination.
The ongoing expulsions come at a time when Afghanistan is already suffering from a deep humanitarian crisis. An estimated 17 million people in the country are facing acute food insecurity and more than 90% of the population lives below the poverty line. Most of the arriving deportees are being deposited in temporary camps. The Kabul government promises to provide funds for food, healthcare, and other services, but this help is likely to be sorely inadequate without the assistance of already underfunded international aid organizations and non-governmental groups. Large numbers of those displaced, away from Afghanistan for many years, find themselves with few ties to the country and nowhere to settle. They have few prospects for employment in a struggling post-war economy burdened by Taliban social policies and where two-thirds of the population is deeply in need of material assistance. With a harsh Afghan winter soon beginning, survival is likely to become extremely difficult for many returnees, especially women and children.
Pakistan argues that its decision on expulsions, reached during an Oct. 3 high-level meeting led by caretaker Prime Minister Anwar-ul-Haq Kakar and attended by Chief of Army Staff Gen. Asim Munir, was made for strictly national security reasons. Officials allege that illegal Afghan immigrants have been involved in recent terrorist incidents within Pakistan. It is claimed that 14 of this year's 24 suicide bombings in the country and other acts of violence involved resident Afghans, who are also accused of engaging in illicit activities such as smuggling and drug trafficking. In addition, Afghans settled in Pakistan are blamed for helping to create a more lethal gun culture. Although Pakistan has over the years embraced Afghan refugees despite the considerable economic and social costs to society, resentment has grown against enterprising Afghans in the labor force, especially for cornering activities in such lucrative sectors as public transport and trucking.
At the same time there has also been condemnation in Pakistan of the government’s actions against refugees. The deportations have triggered political, legal, and foreign policy challenges for the Pakistani government. Critics argue that the government lacks the tools and information with which to accurately distinguish refugees, asylum-seekers, and birthright citizens. Several human rights and political groups, including the Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party and Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, have called for strikes to protest the forced expulsion of Afghans. Questioning the legality and constitutionality of forced mass deportations, several prominent political figures in Pakistan have petitioned for Supreme Court intervention to restrain the government. The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, international rights groups, and several Western embassies have expressed their reservations over Pakistan’s deportation policy. Urging Pakistan to respect the rights and principles applying to refugees, the U.S. has requested protection for at least 25,000 Afghans eligible for relocation to the U.S. under its special immigration program. Though at first rejecting a list of qualifying Afghans and their families, Pakistan has now agreed to exempt them from its deportations. In general, however, neither domestic nor foreign pressure seems likely to deter Pakistan’s establishment from moving ahead with its refugee policy.
Pakistan's treatment of Afghan refugees has prompted warnings from the Kabul government of significant consequences unless Islamabad revisits its decision and stops harassing Afghan nationals. Two Taliban leaders, Prime Minister Mullah Mohammad Hasan Akhund and Defense Minister Muhammad Yaqoob Mujahid, have separately accused Pakistan’s civil and military leadership of disrespecting and harassing refugees and have criticized Pakistan’s confiscation of their property and other assets. The Afghan Taliban government has, however, limited options when it comes to Pakistan. The most telling response by the Kabul government would be to allow for increased cross-border terrorist operations by the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP). But it is doubtful that the Afghan regime, which for economic reasons so heavily depends on retaining open borders for commercial transit, would choose to provoke the Pakistani military into taking additional steps aimed at crushing the TTP, such as carrying out regular retaliatory large-scale strikes within Afghanistan.
The growing frustration of Pakistan’s political and military establishment with the Taliban regime’s continuing reluctance to rein in the TTP probably best explains the timing of Islamabad’s determined effort to dump masses of refugees on Afghan soil. Whether this pressure will be enough to convince the Kabul leadership that the cost of sheltering the TTP is too high is questionable. Not in doubt is the suffering that is about to be inflicted on so many helpless Afghans.
Marvin G. Weinbaum is the director of the Afghanistan and Pakistan Studies Program at the Middle East Institute. Research assistant Naad-e-Ali Sulehria contributed to this piece.
Photo by BANARAS KHAN/AFP via Getty Images
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