The forced migration of thousands of Afghan refugees from Pakistan is unfolding as Pakistan enforces an order from its interim government to expel undocumented individuals residing there. Among the approximately 4 million Afghans residing in Pakistan, an estimated 1.7 million people are targeted by this ‘repatriation’ initiative.
The Pakistani government had previously established a November 1 deadline for those without legal documents, primarily Afghans but also other groups like China’s Uyghurs and Myanmar’s Rohingya, to leave or face arrest and deportation. The date has now been extended. The prolongation of the deadline, stretching from the end of this year to February 29, occurs amid Pakistan’s concerted effort to expel over one million individuals residing in the country without proper documentation.
To facilitate this expulsion, a network of ‘holding centres’ for detained migrants has been set up in Pakistan’s provinces, leading to increased police harassment and abuse of Afghans living in the country. Already, nearly 200,000 Afghan refugees have returned to a homeland that they barely know, with the numbers continuing to rise every day.
The Taliban administration has established two main camps at Torkham and Spin Boldak along the Pakistan border. These camps aim to facilitate the daily transfer of refugees to their respective hometowns and villages across Afghanistan. Despite these efforts, the returning refugees find themselves in dire straits, navigating the challenges of a nation still reeling from the impact of prolonged conflict.
Pakistan’s caretaker interior minister, Sarfraz Bugti, justifies the decision as driven by security concerns. He cited the reason being that 14 out of 24 major terrorist attacks in Pakistan this year were carried out by Afghan nationals. The Pakistani Taliban factions operating within the country pose a challenge to Pakistan’s authorities, although they maintain loose connections with the Taliban government in neighbouring Afghanistan, which disapproves of Pakistan’s planned expulsion.
Many of the Afghans forced to leave were born in Pakistan or sought refuge there decades ago as children. Despite having spent their entire lives in Pakistan, they now face uncertainty and fear. Afghanistan’s history of chaos and strife has consistently driven waves of refugees to neighboring Pakistan and Iran, with the latest surge occurring after the Taliban’s 2021 takeover in Kabul.
After fleeing to Pakistan in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion in the late 1970s, many Afghans, including Gul Khan Kaka, found themselves facing a new wave of displacement as undocumented refugees. Gul Khan Kaka, who had initially sought refuge in Pakistan during the decade-long Soviet-Afghan War, is now 62 and experiencing the chapter of displacement once again.
According to the United Nations, the number of Afghans leaving Pakistan has surpassed 330,000 since the expulsion campaign commenced on November 1. Responding to the urgency of the situation, Pakistan has opened three additional border crossings in the southwestern Balochistan province to accelerate the expulsion campaign. The ongoing plight of these refugees underscores the complex and enduring consequences of conflict, displacement, and geopolitical shifts in the region.
Pakistan’s announced deadline has resulted in detentions, beatings, and extortion, instilling fear among thousands of Afghans about their future. The Human Rights Commission warns that deportation will expose them to significant security risks, including threats to their lives and well-being. While 1.3 million Afghans are registered refugees in Pakistan, and 880,000 have legal status, a substantial population of undocumented Afghans is being collectively punished for the actions of a few militants.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan emphasizes that these vulnerable Afghan refugees, many of whom have considered Pakistan home for generations, should not be held accountable for the wrongs of a select few. The situation has drawn concern from Western governments and international agencies, anticipating a new humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, a country already grappling with a collapsed economy and political isolation.
As refugees return, some face persecution from Taliban authorities, while others lament the challenges of enrolling their girls in schools due to draconian edicts- which are extremely harsh and severe laws, rules, or orders imposed by extremists in charge in Kabul. Homelessness and destitution loom large, underscoring the multifaceted challenges arising from this forced displacement.
Decades of wars and conflicts have left the country grappling with poverty and now it is facing a severe food and job crisis. A staggering 15 out of 40 million people in Afghanistan are uncertain about where their next meal will come from.
Unmoved by concerns and guided by the country’s influential military, Pakistan’s caretaker government is steadfast in implementing its policy of expelling undocumented individuals, including primarily Afghan refugees. The military, known for its significant influence over the caretaker regime, is believed to be a driving force behind this decision.
This move takes place against the backdrop of Pakistan’s preparations for upcoming elections scheduled for February 8. The caretaker regime, not bound by the same political considerations as an elected government, is spearheading the implementation of this policy, shielding the military from potential political backlash. The military’s decision to let the caretaker regime face public criticism reflects a strategic approach to insulate itself from the consequences of the expulsion plan.
As this unfolds, the dynamics between Pakistan’s military, caretaker government, and the approaching elections add complexity to the situation. The political landscape, intertwined with military influence, raises questions about the broader implications of this policy shift and its potential impact on the upcoming electoral process in Pakistan and both countries.