The deadline for the “voluntary” return of illegally residing foreigners in Pakistan expired on Oct. 31, with authorities warning that they would now proceed to arresting and deporting any remnants. Dismissing criticism from rights bodies, the Foreign Office has said the new policy is in line with sovereign domestic laws and international principles. Meanwhile, caretaker Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti has warned of legal action against any Pakistanis found sheltering undocumented migrants, adding illegal foreigners would be housed in holding centers prior to their deportation. This is easier said than done. According to official estimates, roughly 100,000 Afghans have voluntarily returned to their homeland from the Torkham and Chaman border-crossings over the past month, but this is a fraction of the total number believed to be residing in Pakistan.
Rough estimates from the Sindh government suggest 500,000 undocumented migrants reside in the province, with a majority living in Karachi’s slums, making it harder to identify and evict them. There is also the matter of the Rs. 2 billion required to house illegal residents at three holding centers established in Karachi, Hyderabad and Jacobabad—a tall ask amidst an ongoing economic crunch. There are similar costs and risks attached to the deportation drive in the rest of the country, raising fears about the government’s ability to manage the situation without it devolving into disaster.
In various media interactions, officials have stressed zero tolerance for any illegal foreigners remaining in Pakistan after Oct. 31, warning that in light of the new policy, they would face arrests, confiscation of their properties, and eventual deportation. This has prompted calls for restraint from right bodies, with UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, voicing concerns about deported Afghans facing “a whole host of human rights violations including torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, severe discrimination, and lack of access to basic economic and social needs” upon their return. For now, the government maintains it will not be making any changes to its policy, though it remains hard to believe it would be able to achieve its goals, especially as the Interior Ministry, Foreign Office and SAFRON voice conflicting numbers of Afghans residing in Pakistan, heralding tough days ahead for law enforcers and refugees alike.