Photo: Radio Pakistan

Pakistan Expels Thousands of Refugees Ahead of November Deadline

Despite wide criticism, the Pakistani government has stepped up its deportation of undocumented refugees ahead of its previously announced deadline. At least 59,561 refugees have already been repatriated to Afghanistan, according to the state-run Radio Pakistan. More than 3,000 of them were sent back to Afghanistan only on October 15, among them 233 women and 1,055 children.

Khalil ur-Rahman Haqqani, Taliban’s minister of Refugees and Repatriation, has said that they are welcoming refugees “with open arms.” According to the ministry, the group has established, in coordination with the UN agencies, immediate shelters and camps along the border to provide essential services such as food and cash vouchers to families returning. However, the Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid had earlier called on Islamabad to “reconsider” its deportation scheme, saying the decision is “unacceptable.”

Radio Pakistan said that the country’s law enforcement agencies are also actively working at the Torkham and Chaman border crossings to ensure the “safe” return of refugees to Afghanistan. However, other media and human rights reports suggest that Pakistani police and special task forces are often using intimidation, harassment, and arbitrary arrest to expel undocumented refugees. Reports also show abuse and ill-treatment of registered refugees in various cities, particularly in Karachi, despite official notification that registered refugees are not subjected to crackdown and expulsion and can stay in the country.  

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According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are currently 3.7 million refugees from Afghanistan in Pakistan, of which over 1 million are registered and 880,000 reside under other types of legal status. As many as 700,000 people sought refuge in Pakistan following the Taliban takeover in August 2021, many of whom are waiting to be resettled to the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, and other countries.

The situation is also getting tense along the border areas. Since Saturday, October 21, thousands of businessmen, traders, and activists have staged a sit-in at the Chaman border, protesting against the government’s decision to restrict crossing to only those with valid passports and visas after November 1. Protestors have blocked the key Chaman-Kandahar highway which has caused significant disruption to the movement of goods, vehicles, and travelers, inflicting huge economic losses.

Haji Jamal Khan Achakzai, a leader of the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, a political party in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, told Dawn, “The government decision regarding passport and visa for crossing the border will render thousands of people in Chaman and on the other side of the border jobless.”

UN and rights groups have urged Pakistan to halt forced deportation of refugees, warning of human rights violations.

In a joint statement on October 7, UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) urged the Pakistani government to suspend forcible deportation of nationals of Afghanistan and “continue its protection of all vulnerable Afghans who have sought safety in the country and could be at imminent risk if forced to return.”

Afghanistan is grappling with deepening economic, humanitarian, and human rights crises. More than two-thirds of the population—29 million—remain in need of humanitarian assistance while 15.3 million people are suffering from acute food insecurity. UNHCR and IOM said that Pakistan’s deportation plan would have “serious implications for all who have been forced to leave the country and may face serious protection risks upon return.”

The call was echoed by the U.S. State Department spokesperson Mathew Miller who on October 19 said, “We strongly encourage Afghanistan’s neighbors, including Pakistan, to allow entry for Afghans seeking international protection and to coordinate with international humanitarian organizations such as UNHCR and IOM to provide humanitarian assistance.”

Two days earlier, a group of former senior U.S. officials and U.S. resettlement organizations also urged Pakistan to halt the deportation of Afghan applicants for special U.S. visas or refugee relocation to the U.S. In an open letter to the Pakistani authorities, they said, “To deport them back to an environment where their lives would be in jeopardy runs counter to humanitarian principles and international accords.”

According to the Voice of America (VOA), the U.S. has “engaged in high-level diplomatic discussions in Pakistan ”to address concerns related to the mass deportation of refugees from Afghanistan by urging Islamabad to hold to principles of international law, including the principle of non-refoulement, which guarantees that no one should be expelled to a country where they would be at risk of persecution, torture, abuse or other ill-treatment.

Recently, the Independent also revealed that British High Commission officials are negotiating with Pakistani authorities to ensure that refugees from Afghanistan on the UK resettlement scheme will not be affected by the crackdown after the November 1 deadline. There are about 3,000 nationals of Afghanistan currently stranded in Islamabad while hundreds more await in Iran for resettlement to the UK.