The ongoing repatriation of undocumented migrants—primarily Afghans, some of them refugees—is perceived as cruelty by rights activists, who lament that people who have resided in Pakistan for decades cannot be expected to uproot their lives within weeks. But while the state must ensure the deportations are conducted humanely, there is little wrong with Pakistan—finally—striving to regain its sovereignty over its territory by implementing laws that have seldom been enforced.
According to some commentators, the repatriation policy aims to “pressure the Taliban government in Afghanistan to comply with Pakistan’s demands” to act against the banned TTP. This is partly true, but fails to account for Islamabad’s dilemma in tackling a porous border that facilitates unplanned migration and alters the country’s demography and internal politics. Securing the Durand Line would enable Pakistan to make its western border a normal boundary, bolstering the viability of the state. This is doubly necessary, as the Afghan Taliban have made no secret of refusing to acknowledge the border, and Pakistan cannot be considered a sovereign state so long as it cannot protect its boundaries.
Overall, Afghans—migrants and refugees alike—have thronged to Pakistan in five distinct phases: the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; the 1992 mujahideen takeover of Kabul; the Taliban’s seizure of power in 1996; post-Taliban ouster in 2001; and the 2021 return to power of the Taliban. Pakistan’s error in each of these phases was a failure to “regularize” the incoming groups; its current policy is a belated—and hasty—course correction. To be clear, this is no different from the refugee and migrant policies of most Western states, which often deport illegal residents by the planeload to little protest from their states of origin.
The core issue to be recognized is that Pakistan’s policies with regards to Afghanistan—for good or ill—have aimed to safeguard its own national, strategic and security interests. This has become an urgent requirement as Kabul has gradually transformed into a failed state. As noted by the Afghan Taliban themselves—as well as various Pakistani officials—Afghanistan is no longer at war, and should be on the path to reviving law and order. Unfortunately, the refusal of a majority of the global community to recognize the Taliban government has left the country in a perilous state, with 15 million Afghans currently facing food insecurity. Pakistan must help overcome this—but not at the cost of its own sovereignty.