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Afghans in the Crosshairs

While Pakistan maintains its new policy on illegal foreigners does not target any nationality, its biggest victims will likely be Afghan refugees fleeing decades of conflict

by Sumeera Riaz

File photo. Hoshang Hashimi—AFP

With the deadline for the voluntary return of illegally residing foreigners in Pakistan nearing, fears are mounting among Afghan refugees—many of whom lack proper documentation—that they will be forced to return to a country where they face threats to their lives; if, that is, they even recall a ‘homeland’ they have not set foot in for decades.

Earlier this month, interim Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti announced all illegally residing foreigners in Pakistan had till Oct. 31 to voluntarily return to their homelands or risk deportation and confiscation of their assets. Addressing media, he maintained the decision aimed to ensure the security of the people of Pakistan, alleging many undocumented migrants were involved in criminal activity. To bolster the new policy, he noted that Afghan nationals were involved in 14 of 24 suicide attacks recorded in Pakistan thus far this year. Stressing the policy applies to all illegally residing foreigners, not just Afghans, he nonetheless noted that an estimated 1.7 million Afghans were living Pakistan “illegally.”

Over the past year, various military and civilian officials have accused Afghanistan of failing to prevent its soil from being used for terrorism across the Durand Line. The back-and-forth, with Kabul urging Pakistan to resolve the issue through “dialogue,” has raised tensions between the neighboring states and dented the traditional “soft corner” the state has had for Afghans residing in Pakistan—whether legally or illegally. The new policy has brought this into sharp focus, especially in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, where the largest number of Afghans are believed to reside.

Provincial actions

Since Bugti’s announcement, the caretaker government of Khyber Pakhtunkhawa has initiated a crackdown against illegal foreigners, making it clear only documented individuals can remain after Oct. 31. Sensing the shifting tide, several families have reportedly evacuated their homes, sold their assets, and returned to Afghanistan via the Chaman border. According to the Commissionerate Afghan Refugees, around 956,720 Afghan refugees live in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, though only 648,968 are officially registered.

Peshawar Commissioner Muhammed Zubair told the Standard that relevant authorities were collecting data of all foreigners residing in the province, as well as details of properties and businesses owned by Afghan refugees. “Various camps have also been set up in Aza Khel, Chamkani and Haji to facilitate the expulsion of foreigners,” he said, indicating illegal foreigners could be detained prior to their deportation once the deadline expires.

Similar actions are underway in Balochistan, where Information Secretary Hamza Shafqat said around 800,000 Afghans refugees were formally registered. “As far as illegal Afghans are concerned, the government is collecting data but according to a rough estimate the number of undocumented Afghans is more or less one million and that’s only in Quetta and its surrounding areas,” he told the Standard.

According to Shafqat, the eviction of undocumented migrants would take place in phases. “In the first phase, we are trying to collect data of those Afghans who have no papers and no registration at all and this exercise may take a month or so,” he said. “As of now, around 5,000 unregistered Afghans have been evicted from Chaman border, some of whom left voluntarily, while some were evicted under The Foreigners Act.” Once the deadline expires, he warned, any remaining illegals would be arrested, prosecuted, and evicted from the country.

Stressing that the policy is not aimed against any single community or country, Punjab Inspector General of Police (IGP) Usman Anwar told Standard authorities would only penalize immigrants overstaying their visas or lacking any documentation. “Foreigners with residence permits, ACCs [Afghan Citizenship Cards] and valid visas will not be disturbed,” he clarified, adding provincial authorities had already mapped all foreigners, including Afghans, to make sure no one stays in Pakistan illegally. Pakistan is not a “free-for-all” country, he said, adding the same policy would apply on every nationality.

“According to our lists,” he said, “More than 100,000 foreigners are overstaying their visas and some of them have started to go back.” On Bugti’s claims of illegal foreigners being involved in criminal activity, he law enforcers were ensuring convicts could not buy any properties in the province. He also warned that once Oct. 31 passed, the government would take serious action while adhering to human rights.

In Sindh capital Karachi, which attracts a large number of migrants as Pakistan’s largest city, law enforcement agencies have alleged that many illegal Afghans are involved in criminal activity. According to Karachi East Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Police Ghulam Azfar Mahesar, Afghans have been found involved in cases of snatching, killing and ransom. “There are more than 400,000 illegal Afghans who are residing in Karachi and its suburbs,” he claimed, warning no illegal immigrants would be allowed to remain in the country after the deadline expires.

Emphasizing the government’s seriousness on the issue, he said cops who fail to curb crimes would be removed from service.

Wakil Kohsar—AFP

Fleeing persecution

But while authorities are clear on the need to expel undocumented foreigners, rights bodies at home and abroad have sounded the alarm, stressing refugees should not be prosecuted. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Qaisar Khan Afridi told the Standard that while the global body appreciated and acknowledged the people and government of Pakistan for hosting Afghan refugees for over 40 years, forcing them to leave endangered their lives.

“We must also keep in mind that those fleeing persecution often do not have the necessary documents and travel permissions,” he noted, explaining that approximately 1.3 million Afghan refugees had expired proof of registration cards, and the Ministry for States and Frontier Regions (SAFRON) had forwarded recommendations to the federal cabinet in this regard. “Of 1.3 million [registered] Afghan refugees, 52 percent are residing in Khyber Pakhtunkhawa; 330,000 in Balochistan; 160,000 in Punjab; and 70,000 in Sindh,” he said, adding this entitled them to equal opportunities of jobs, education and banking services.

Afridi acknowledged that 850,000 Afghans had entered Pakistan illegally, but maintained they were subsequently documented under the National Action Plan through NADRA and given ACCs. A third category, he said, were undocumented Afghan migrants who entered Pakistan prior to 2021 and numbered around 500,000. After the Taliban returned to power, he said, another 700.000 Afghans had entered Pakistan, of which around 100,000 had sought asylum in foreign countries.

The UNHCR spokesperson said the organization was ready to help Pakistan develop a mechanism to manage and register people needing international protection, lamenting the lack of coordination between ministries regarding the number of Afghans in the country. “Conflicting numbers of Afghan refugees by Interior Ministry, Foreign Office and SAFRON speaks volume of their ignorance about the situation they are dealing with,” he said.

“Any refugee return must be voluntary without any pressure to ensure protection for those seeking safety,” he stressed. “Pakistan has remained a generous refugee host for decades. This role has been acknowledged globally but more needs to be done to match its generosity,” he added.

Only illegals at risk

Emphasizing that the government’s efforts to identify undocumented foreigners was ongoing, Foreign Office spokesperson Mumtaz Zahra Baloch told Standard there were 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees in the country. “Our policy is to expel illegal foreigners who have overstayed visas or who are here without valid documentation and it’s not specific to Afghanistan only,” she said, adding no one would be deported prior to the expiration of the deadline.

“There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Many options are under consideration after the lapse of the deadline, as different options will be approached for Afghans living along the border and those who are vulnerable, [while other] foreigners will be dealt with on case-to-case basis,” she clarified.

For Afghans with pending visa applications for the U.S., U.K., and European nations, she said it was those countries’ responsibility to expedite the visa process and end the uncertainty for Afghan families waiting for two years. “We hope that European countries move faster in processing their visa applications and make things easier for us,” she said.

It is undeniable that Pakistan has hosted the world’s second largest refugee population, estimated to be over 4 million Afghans, for decades, with only half of them officially registered. What is equally undeniable, however, is that no individual ever flees their home by choice, and asylum-seekers cannot be forced to leave, especially after they have established roots. The people of Afghanistan have suffered conflict for decades, from the Russian invasion in 1979, to the civil war in 1992, to the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 and their eventual return in 2021. Pakistan cannot abandon them, or force them to return if they face threats to their lives upon their return.

With the government making clear it will not back down from its policy, it becomes incumbent on the civil society and rights bodies to ensure authorities do not overstep and any deportations are conducted humanely, with due exemptions for those who are merely the victims of circumstance.

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