Earlier this week, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR reported there were 6.1 million Afghan refugees globally, increasing the number from 5.7 million to reflect new population estimates of Pakistan’s government. According to the report, Iran—with 3.4 million—and Pakistan—with 2.1 million—host 90 percent of all Afghan refugees. The key issue for Pakistan, per interim Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti, is the “unregistered” refugees, believed to number 800,000. In total, Pakistan alleges 1.7 million Afghans are living illegally on its soil, with many involved in “criminal” activities, including securing fake Pakistani passports.
In a briefing to the Senate Standing Committee on Interior earlier this week, Bugti sought to clarify that the ongoing drive to expel illegal foreigners was not singling out Afghans, but rather was aimed at ensuring all migration was documented. It is undeniable that Pakistan’s porous western border has facilitated illegal cross-border movement, with the situation reaching a boiling point over the past few years amidst resurgent terrorism and an economic crisis partly attributed to smuggling of dollars and goods. Until and unless Pakistan enforces the state’s writ in these areas—including but not limited to implementing immigration laws—any attempts to counter these threats is bound to fail.
Bugti has stressed there would be no change to the Oct. 31 for illegal foreigners to voluntarily leave the country, adding any individuals who remain in the country after that point would be shifted to “centers” before deportation. This has, naturally, attracted criticism from rights bodies, with Amnesty International urging the government to not deport Afghan refugees who face persecution by the Taliban in their homeland. Unfortunately, as Pakistan is not a signatory to the U.N. Refugee Convention, and does not have a national asylum system in place, options for any refugees here are limited. Registered Afghan refugees are allowed to remain through Proof of Registration cards, but these too have faced issues of renewal owing to the Pakistan’s internal problems. With the deadline for the exit for illegal foreigners fast approaching, there would undoubtedly be much pain in the coming weeks, but Pakistan also cannot continue as a free-for-fall state. It’s a pity that so many Afghans fall between a rock and a hard place as a consequence.