As global attention centered on Gaza and the compounding upheavals and traumas triggered by Israel’s war on Hamas, another population is in crisis. Hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees are being forced to leave Pakistan as the country implements an order from its interim government to remove undocumented people from within its borders. Of the roughly 4 million Afghans living in Pakistan, about 1.7 million people are thought to be in the crosshairs of this “repatriation” plan.
The Pakistani government set a Nov. 1 deadline for when people without legal documents — primarily Afghans, but also potentially asylum seekers from persecuted groups such as China’s Uyghurs and Myanmar’s Rohingya — to remain in the country must leave, or otherwise face arrest and deportation. A network of “holding centers” for detained migrants has been set up in Pakistan’s provinces, and locals report a surge in police harassment and abuse of Afghans living in the country. Close to 200,000 Afghan refugees have already returned to a homeland some do not even know, with the numbers rising.
Sarfraz Bugti, Pakistan’s caretaker interior minister, has framed the decision as one shaped by security imperatives, claiming that 14 out of 24 major terrorist attacks carried out this year within Pakistan have been by Afghan nationals. Pakistan is struggling to rein in the Pakistani Taliban outfits operating within the country; these factions have loose connections to the Taliban government next door in Afghanistan, which has denounced Pakistan’s planned expulsion of its nationals.
Many of the Afghans who have joined this exodus were born in Pakistan or fled to the country decades ago as children. “I was born in Pakistan, I’ve lived here for 42 years, I went to school in Pakistan,” a man identified as Nasim, who had traveled to the Torkham border crossing from the northern city Peshawar, told CNN. “I’ve never been to Afghanistan.”
Now, their lives are subsumed in uncertainty and fear. More than 50 years of chaos and strife in Afghanistan have sent waves of refugees to neighboring Pakistan and Iran. The latest flow came after the Taliban’s 2021 takeover in Kabul, but many Afghans have resided in Pakistan since the days of the Soviet invasion. Reporters at border crossings detail tragic stories of Afghan families fleeing police extortion, vigilante violence and losing their businesses and property.
“Pakistan’s announced deadline for Afghans to return has led to detentions, beatings, and extortion, leaving thousands of Afghans in fear over their future,” Fereshta Abbasi, Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement last week. “The situation in Afghanistan remains dangerous for many who fled, and deportation will expose them to significant security risks, including threats to their lives and well-being.”
According to the United Nations, 1.3 million Afghans are registered refugees in Pakistan and 880,000 more have legal status to remain. But a huge population of undocumented Afghans live in the country and are now being collectively punished for the actions of a handful of militants. “The large majority of such people are vulnerable Afghan refugees and stateless persons for whom Pakistan has been home for several generations,” wrote the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan last month in the wake of the government’s order.
“It is unacceptable to hold them to account for the wrongs of a select few,” it added. “They have a moral right to seek refuge in this country and to be treated with dignity and empathy.”
Western governments and international agencies also expressed alarm, warning of a new humanitarian crisis in a country like Afghanistan that is already crippled by a collapsed economy and the pariah status of its political leadership. Some returning refugees face persecution at the hands of the Taliban authorities. Others lament the inability to enroll their girls in schools, given the draconian edicts of the extremists in charge in Kabul. Many fear homelessness and destitution.
“I lived in Pakistan for more than a decade,” a man identified as Mohmand told Al Jazeera at a border crossing. “I have three children and a large, extended family, who are being pushed back after the government did not fulfill its promise of providing us proper documentation. I have no money, no roof. Where do I go back to?”
Unmoved, Pakistan’s caretaker government, guided by the country’s domineering military, is pressing ahead as it also prepares for elections scheduled Feb. 8. “The military, which exerts heavy influence over the caretaker regime, is likely driving the policy. (The army chief publicly endorsed the move and attended the meeting finalizing the plan.),” noted Michael Kugelman, South Asia director at the Wilson Center. “But it’s letting the caretaker regime — which need not worry about political blowback — take any public flak.”
Kugelman, writing in Foreign Policy, added that Pakistan may be trying to use the situation in its wrangling with Kabul: “Islamabad may be using the expulsion policy in part to compel the Taliban — which have condemned the move — to help more on counterterrorism. Sadly, vulnerable Afghans — from young new arrivals to older and established residents who embrace Pakistan as their only home — are becoming casualties of broader geopolitical machinations.”
Pakistan has a long, fraught history with the Taliban. The Islamist extremist organization received direct support and succor from Pakistan’s military establishment, and various wings of its leadership were allowed sanctuary in Pakistani cities. For years, the U.S.-backed government in Kabul blamed Pakistan for helping incubate the Taliban and enabling its militancy.
The tables have somewhat turned now, with Pakistani authorities frustrated with the inability of the Taliban in Kabul to check the infiltration and plots of the Pakistani Taliban. Those include separate attacks over the weekend on a police convoy and at an air force base. “The attacks have occurred as Pakistan carries out its repatriation plan for Afghans, which has been met with anger in Kabul,” noted a Sunday editorial in Pakistani daily Dawn. “Our security apparatus will need to remain extra vigilant and flush out not just the militants but also their facilitators.”
In a video statement, the Taliban’s acting prime minister Mohammad Hassan Akhund said that “if the current military and civilian rulers of Pakistan, or specifically the generals, have any problems with the Afghan government, they should solve them through negotiations. Come and talk face to face with us; don’t mistreat refugees for that.”
Mullah Muhammad Yaqoob, the Taliban regime’s defense minister, called on Pakistani officials not to treat Afghan refugees with “cruelty” and to protect their property and possessions. He issued an ominous warning to Islamabad: “As you sow, so shall you reap.”
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