Life in Limbo

Registered Afghanistan Refugees in Pakistan: 1,333,749

When Kabul fell to the Taliban, the renowned folk singer Ahad Bamyani (name retracted to protect his identity) knew his life was in danger simply for his profession. To escape that danger, he took his family on a treacherous journey to seek refuge in Balochistan’s Quetta capital, which borders Afghanistan. “Who leaves their beloved home to seek shelter in another country?” he told me, his voice cracking, “Those who are no longer safe, those who are desperate.”

Unregistered, Bamyani’s refuge in Quetta could be short-lived. The Pakistani government has embarked on a massive campaign to crackdown on refugees. Arrests are ubiquitous all around the country and border crossings are tightening. It came after Pakistan’s Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti warned on Tuesday, October 3, that if the 1.7 million undocumented refugees do not leave Pakistan by November this year, law enforcement agencies will forcibly deport them. But apparently, the police have already begun rounding up and expelling refugees.

This means the time for Bamyani is running out. He could be deported to his death or tortured in the Taliban-governed Afghanistan, which Pakistan considers safe to return. After Bamyani left Afghanistan, the Taliban banned music calling it “immoral and un-Islamic”, tortured and killed many who played or listened to it, and burned musical instruments and speakers. In one instance, the group’s militants stormed the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, once a vibrant art center populated by young musicians and the country’s first all-female orchestra, Zohra. They took pianos, harmoniums, rubabs, and other instruments in the backyard of the vacated and soulless building to break with axes, as if readying firewood for the winter.

In addition to musicians and artists, those like Assad Rahimi [alias], who served in the national army before the government collapsed, could also be persecuted by the Taliban if they were deported. Although the Taliban continues to claim they exercise a general amnesty, they have detained, abused, and executed hundreds of former members of security forces and ex-officials. According to an investigation by the New York Times, the regime killed more than 400 members of the former security agencies in just seven months after returning to power. Between August 15, 2021, and June 2023, the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) documented at least 800 cases of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture, and ill-treatment against former army, police, and intelligence forces. Rahimi’s cousin who worked in the previous intelligence agency was one of those who believed the regime’s announcement of amnesty. But he was killed by the Taliban after returning from Iran, Rahimi said. Imploring the Pakistani government, he asks to reverse its decision and allow them “to live in dignity and peace until [they] find a way out.”

Abdul Haq [alias], who served in the former republican ministry of defense, thought he was luckier as he had a valid visa. But with his visa expiring, the new government decision means he is also running out of time. He is among thousands in Pakistan waiting to be resettled by Western countries, particularly the United States. According to the Associated Press, there are about 150,000 applicants for the U.S. Special Immigration Visas (SIV) and another 27,400 who have applied for the U.S. P-1 and P-2 priority refugee protection programs. In June, the U.S. Department of State said that it has only relocated 24,000 applicants since September 2021.

For Haq, the relocation process has already taken a mental and economic toll. In the recent waves of crackdown, he has been detained twice and endured mistreatment at the hands of Pakistani police, even though he had a valid visa and police registration documents. “I was sleeping when someone violently opened the gate and entered the house. I was terrified, thinking it was a thief. But they were Pakistani police who ransacked the house and also my money. They dragged me into their vehicle filled with other immigrants and then took us to the police station. After holding me off until dawn, the police released me before a harrowing interrogation but didn’t return my money,” he lamented.

Pakistan has for decades played host to millions of refugees from Afghanistan fleeing conflict, persecution, and unemployment at home. U.N. says there are currently 3.7 million refugees dispersed across the country, of which over 1 million are registered and 880,000 reside under other types of legal status.

The presence of such a large number of refugees from Afghanistan has also offered Islamabad a leverage against the government in Kabul. Pakistani authorities have often used refugees to negotiate favorable deals with Western countries, attract aid and development, and pressure Kabul if need be. For example, in 2017, the Pakistani government wielded against two million undocumented refugees from Afghanistan and at one point threatened to deport all refugees within a limited deadline. Although such moves caught refugees in the crossfire leading to thousands of arbitrary arrests and detention, confiscation of properties, and subsequent deportation, many continued to live as tensions eased.

It does not seem to be any different this time, although the scale and severity of it might appear unprecedented.

Islamabad appears to use the massive deportation of refugees as a pressure tactic on the Taliban, which has urged Pakistan to rethink its “unacceptable” move. The timing stems from Islamabad’s mounting resentment against the ruling authorities in Kabul. Patrician Gossman, Associate Asia Director at Human Rights Watch said on Thursday, October 12, that “Afghans in Pakistan have long been a political football kicked back and forth between the two countries with little regard for their rights.”

Pakistani authorities blame the Taliban for its reluctance to rein in cross-border terror attacks. Militant groups in Pakistan, particularly the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) which shares ideological and operational alignment with the Taliban, have been emboldened after the latter seized power in August 2021. Since then, the group has significantly intensified its attacks against Pakistani security forces and civilians. Violence in Pakistan surged by 79% in the first half of 2023 compared to the same period in 2022. According to the Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies, August this year saw the highest spate of terror attacks in a single month since November 2014, when 99 attacks killed 112 people and wounded 87 others.

The relations between Islamabad and Kabul significantly soared earlier last month over a deadly clash along the main Torkham border and terror attacks by TTP militants the same day in Chitral, a border region near Afghanistan, which killed four Pakistani soldiers. In response, the Pakistani government carried out a renewed crackdown on refugees from Afghanistan in major urban areas, particularly Karachi, detaining and deporting thousands. Although the events prompted Islamabad to use utmost pressure on Kabul to curb TTP hideouts and take action against militants, the Taliban has remained unassertive.

In recent weeks more terror attacks struck Pakistan, fraying Islamabad’s nerves to eventually come forth with the recent deportation scheme. Bugti claimed that “illegal” refugees from Afghanistan are involved in supporting terrorism, narcotics dealing, and other criminal activities. He claimed that of the 24 suicide attacks inside Pakistan since earlier this year, 14 bombings were carried out by nationals from Afghanistan, including the attack in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Hangu late last month.

However, unlike previous waves of pressuring refugees, there is no sign of relenting in sight thus far. Experts and critics believe there could be at play factors other than soaring relations with Kabul. Pakistan is going through crashing economic and political crises. The crackdown on refugees could be an effort to divert attention from domestic woes. Afrasiab Khattak, a former Pakistani senator, has called the decision “the darkest chapter” of his country and has warned that it will breed animosity in future generations. Farhatullah Babar, another former Pakistani senator, has also criticized the government’s decision as an “angry knee-jerk reaction” saying that the state is once again “playing football with refugees… for some other objectives.”

The vague parameters of the crackdown have caused fears that it might not be limited to only undocumented refugees and may threaten the lives of those with legal permits. Before the Tuesday announcement, Pakistan’s Caretaker Prime Minister Anwar ul-Haq Kakar said, “In the first phase, illegal residents, in the second phase, those with Afghan citizenship, and in the third phase, those with proof of residence cards will be expelled.” In other words, Pakistan would rule against its domestic policy and international commitment by removing the registered Proof of Registration Cards (PoR) holders, who are entitled to legal protection and stay throughout the country.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has said the government’s decision reflects an “absence of compassion” and a “myopic and narrow view” of the country’s national security, adding that it is “unacceptable to hold them [millions of refugees] to account for the wrongs of a select few.”

The Commission has called on the government to reverse its decision immediately, saying it breaches international human rights laws. The commission has said it will lobby with the government to sign the 1951 Refugee Convention to the Status of Refugees, which Pakistan has not ratified. Pakistan is also not a signatory to the 1967 Protocol which clarifies the rights of refugees and helps protect them. Instead, the Pakistani government treats refugees under the domestic Foreigners Act 1946. The legislature allows law enforcement agencies to detain and deport refugees, which it describes as “illegal immigrants.”

Although Pakistan has not signed the two key international treaties pertaining it refugees, it is bound by broader principles of international law such as the principle of non-refoulement which obligates countries not to forcibly return anyone to a country where they would face persecution, torture, punishment, and other ill-treatment. Islamabad is also bound by the U.N. Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment that prevents signatories from returning anyone to countries where they would face risks of such abuse or degrading treatment.

Additionally, Pakistan’s decision is also a violation of the Tripartite Agreement—signed between the governments of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the U.N. High Commission for Refugees—which allows only voluntary repatriation of refugees. According to the agreement, UNHCR could publicly state that Pakistan is in breach of its commitments if its authorities force refugees to repatriate. In a statement on October 7, UNHCR and the UN Migration Agency (IOM) jointly urged Pakistan to continue its protection of all vulnerable refugees from Afghanistan who have sought safety in the country. Earlier, UNHCR’s spokesperson in Pakistan Qaisar Khan Afridi told the Anadolu News Agency that the agency is “seeking clarity from the government” about the scheme. Afridi called on the Pakistani government to “institute a mechanism to ensure Afghans with international protection were not deported,” and help the government register those in need of protection.

Voluntary Repatriation of Afghanistan Refugees from Pakistan since 2002

Source: UNHCR

The U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric has said that Pakistan’s deportation scheme is “obviously a concerning development, calling for their voluntary and dignified return. This sentiment was echoed by Nadia Rahman, Amnesty International’s Interim Deputy Regional Director for research in South Asia, who urged the Pakistani government to allow the refugees to live with dignity and “free from the fear of deportation to Afghanistan where they face persecution by the Taliban.” The rights organization also reiterated its calls on the UNHCR to expedite registration of refugee applicants and on the international community to deliver on their “initial promises of providing protection” to refugees from Afghanistan.

The implications of the crackdown are certain for desperate refugees like the folk singer Bamyani who could find themselves in the crosshairs of the Taliban if they were forced to return. The singer is not alone. Among the unregistered refugees are soldiers, judges, journalists, artists, human rights defenders, and economic migrants. There are also others the Taliban has waged war against, such as the Shia Hazaras and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Sumaiya Khurwani is a Hazara, an indigenous Asiatic Shia community historically persecuted, subjugated, and executed by a multitude of forces, especially the Taliban. Khurwani now lives in a refugee camp in Islamabad along with 500 other families without access to basic services such as clean drinking water. The deportation means imminent danger for her and an added layer of vulnerability because of her gender. In the past two years, the Taliban have erased women from public life, banning their access to education, employment, and other basic freedoms. 

“They [Taliban] think that our beliefs are wrong and we’re non-Muslims,” she said in a documentary film. “When we went to school, we were blasted. When we went to a mosque, we were again blasted… There was no peace for the Hazara people. So, we couldn’t live there, especially for women. We could go to school, but again we were blasted.”

Among those anxious for return are also people like Juma Khan, who might call Pakistan more of a home than Afghanistan has ever been. Khan, a clothing trader in Karachi, is cautioned from venturing outside as normal or trying to access business markets. A middle-aged man leading a family of eight, he is among many refugees from Afghanistan who have been living in Pakistan undocumented for generations. “I was born in Pakistan. My parents and grandparents were born here, too. I run a business here. How can I return to a country where I don’t even know what it looks like?” he said.

Juma Khan’s story is an example of thousands from Afghanistan who have been denied a dignified life because of restrictive refugee policies in the region. Despite decades of leading productive lives, hundreds of thousands still do not have legal residence permits. In addition to Pakistan, Afghanistan’s western neighbor Iran has also begun cracking down on refugees. Videos of laborers being beaten and humiliated continue to circulate on social media. One of these videos, the authenticity and location of which was confirmed by the BBC, showed a refugee being beaten by a group of Iranians who were threatening him to leave the area by the next day. In another, a construction worker says that he worked with a pen in Afghanistan but holds a shovel now. The man then says, that means in today’s Afghanistan, “I cannot even work with a shovel.” Iran’s Sharq newspaper reported on September 29 that a gang on motorbikes with masked faces and knives showed up at Qasem Abad, a neighborhood 15 KM west of Tehran, to harass residents who were from Afghanistan, including breaking windows of their shops and robbing their money.

In Iran, where millions of people from Afghanistan have lived for many years, undocumented refugees have struggled to access education, health, banking, and telecommunication services. Even those who do have legal permits are not allowed, after decades, to buy property. Those who want to do so often purchase it under an Iranian’s name. According to a decree by Iran’s High Council of National Security, people from Afghanistan are barred from living in 16 of Iran’s 31 provinces.

Afghanistan’s refugees in Iran (Dark Highlighted Areas)

According to the UN Office of High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR), there are around 4.5 million people from Afghanistan living in Iran. Iranian authorities say the number is as high as over 5 million. At least one million of them have arrived in the country after the political crisis of August 2021 that brought the Taliban back to power while the Iranian interior ministry says the number of refugees from Afghanistan before 2021 was only 2.5 million. The UN says approximately half a million of the 4.5 million people are undocumented refugees, a number much lower than the 1.7 million in Pakistan. That lower number could also be due to the higher rate of deportation in Iran. The UN refugee agency says 65% of those who went to Iran after the collapse of the previous government in Afghanistan were deported. The Iranian authorities said last August that they had deported 224,000 refugees from Afghanistan in 2023, showing a 15% increase from 2022. Some reports show the figures as high as 250,000.

Refugees also bring benefits and opportunities. In Iran, most of the construction industry is filled with low-wage workers from Afghanistan. Iranian experts and authorities agree that they are imperative to their country’s economy. According to Iran’s Etimad newspaper, 43% of refugees from Afghanistan are construction laborers. Another 18% are tailors and farmers.

Afghanistan Refugees in IRAN (Total Headcount: 2,600,000)
Source: UNHCR

But that is not all. The profile of those who have sought to live in Iran has grown more diverse. There are over 25,000 students from Afghanistan at Iranian universities and another 670,000 in the country’s schooling system. These opportunities, however, are not without limitations. Most STEM degrees such as nuclear physics, chemical engineering, and any degree related to aerospace fields are not available to nationals of Afghanistan.

There are also those who have turned to Iran for investment and economic activity. As political uncertainty at home sparked capital flight, many looked at Iran as a destination. An Iranian government minister recently said people from Afghanistan are “the largest foreign investors in Iran.” They have invested anywhere between $300,000 and $5 million. Those are substantial amounts, especially when considered in Iranian Reyal terms, given the hyperinflation rate of 40 to 60% reported throughout 2023.

Similar to Pakistan, Iran is also grappling with a deepening economic crisis. Continued sanctions have exacerbated the effects of a multidimensional crisis marked by higher inflation, higher commodity prices, and fiscal limitations that have stressed many countries globally. Advocates of deporting refugees, mostly supporters of President Ebrahim Raisi’s administration, argue that millions of refugees put tremendous stress on an already stretched economy. The government’s critics, however, say the administration tries to use refugee populations to shape election outcomes, something similar to Erdogan’s instrumentalization of the Syrian population in Turkey.

Although the current wave of crackdown in Iran and Pakistan are one of the most severe in recent memory, they are not unique in any way. The plight of refugees from Afghanistan shows the almost never-ending implications of the political crisis in 2021 that left their country in the hands of a group that preys on its own population. Even if governments in Tehran and Islamabad retract their decision to deport refugees, their suffering will continue, leaving millions of young people, especially women and girls, deprived of opportunities for a dignified life at home and abroad.

Bismellah Zahidi contributed to this reporting from Islamabad and Tehran. Nasrullah Mohseni developed the maps and infographics.