Expulsion of Afghan Refugees is part of Pakistan's longstanding crackdown

afghan refugees in pakistan

Pakistan’s caretaker government announced the new Illegal Foreigners Repatriation Plan in October as part of its latest part in a longstanding mission to crack down on refugees and migrants.

The plan called for the expulsion of all immigrants without documentation as well as those who had overstayed their visas. Although its language was ambiguous, the message was clear. This new ruling targets one specific group of foreigners: Afghans. 

Pakistan’s desire to expel its Afghan refugee population is not new. Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Pakistan has become home to millions of refugees escaping war and insecurity, with numbers increasing following each tragedy that has been inflicted upon Afghans — 600,000 alone have already sought refuge in Pakistan since the Taliban’s return in August 2021. In 2016, the Pakistani government employed aggressive measures to force out its Afghan population.

With the deadline for repatriation set for Nov. 1, tens of thousands had already resigned themselves to their new fate voluntarily. Still, many more remained, unwilling to accept a return to life under the Taliban. Despite promises of a “safe and dignified” return, footage from Pakistan’s northwest border crossing showed scenes of chaos and disorganization, with the state remaining committed to its promise regardless of whether Afghanistan had the capacity to process and reintegrate such large numbers of people. This latest attempt to rid the country of its sizable Afghan refugee population is the most troublesome yet.

As expected, the Pakistani government softened its stance, extending the deadline for some 1.4 million Afghan refugees with legal residence in the country until the end of the year. This decision came following a month of pressure from organizations including Amnesty International, and although a welcome update, it did not include an extension for undocumented Afghans. There is a real fear now that Islamabad is more serious than ever about forcing out its Afghan population, and with the Taliban back in control next door, the repercussions for those who return could be life-threatening.

Widespread Abuses

Among those facing the risk of expulsion include journalists and women’s rights activists — people who were forced to flee Afghanistan ahead of the wave of violence that would accompany the Taliban’s return. In the two years since, the Taliban has proved such fears right. Journalists were forced to quit their jobs, imprisoned or kicked out of the country, while separately, women’s advocates were tear-gassed, beaten, and detained for participating in protests. 

These widespread abuses have been documented by news outlets and condemned by international organizations. Pakistan cannot claim ignorance of the reality that awaits some of these Afghan returnees. Yet rather than allow sympathy for those affected to take hold, the caretaker government has ramped up attempts to vilify the country’s Afghan population, chipping away at public support for their plight.  

Regional politicians, such as the home minister for Balochistan, Zubair Jamali, have accused Afghan nationals of being involved in “14 out of 24 suicide bombings in Pakistan this year,” adding that they are “destabilizing the country and [that] it won’t be tolerated.” Such inflammatory allegations are echoed at the very summit of the government, with the caretaker Prime Minister Anwar ul Haq Kakar arguing that undocumented immigrants make up “a significant portion of those involved in criminal and terrorist activities.’” 

These are the kinds of sweeping generalizations that were commonplace in the populist era of former prime minister Imran Khan, although ironically enough, part of Khan’s rhetoric included offering permanent residence to Afghan refugees. What is clear is that the caretaker government — which is firmly propped up by the real power broker in Pakistan, the military — is looking for a scapegoat for the country’s troubles. In the past 18 months, the social contract between the military and Pakistani society has worn thin, with an escalating security situation compounding environmental and humanitarian catastrophes. In the government’s words, it cannot take care of its own citizens’ “welfare and security” for as long as these Afghan refugees remain in the country. 

In reality, this decision is far more about sending a message to Kabul than it is about improving the lives of ordinary Pakistanis. The Tehreek-e Taliban (TTP), which pledges allegiance to the Afghan Taliban, has increased its militant activities by 80% in 2023, stunning the Pakistani state and pushing it to plead with Kabul for assistance. 

Rather than help its longtime benefactors, the Afghan Taliban have sat back and allowed the TTP to run riot throughout Pakistan, providing them with safe havens from which they can conduct cross-border attacks. This mirrors events from the war in Afghanistan, which saw the Pakistani military sponsor terrorist entities such as the Haqqani Network. It appears that Pakistan has yet to reap the benefits of this double game. As a result, relations between Kabul and Islamabad have been on a downward trajectory since the end of 2021, with Afghan refugees now being used as pawns in this larger game of chess between the two South Asian governments. 

In reality, this decision is far more about sending a message to Kabul than it is about improving the lives of ordinary Pakistanis.

Either way, it is difficult to see such a strategy working out for Pakistan. As with the many past attempts to deport Afghan refugees back to their home country, there is still a chance that Pakistan will renege on its latest promise, yielding under the pressure of international organizations and foreign powers. 

Mounting Pressure

A week after the Nov. 1 deadline had passed, Kakar spoke out to assure the United States that Afghans who had previously been employed by the American military or government, or had worked for other international organizations or aid agencies, and were currently waiting in Pakistan for resettlement in the US, would not face deportation back to Afghanistan to face inevitable punishments from the Taliban. Now that the government has shown it is willing to halt the process of expulsion in certain situations, pressure will continue to mount until the whole initiative is stopped, especially as Afghanistan struggles to accept those that have already returned. 

Equally, Pakistan must be aware of the risks associated with this decision. A mass influx of refugees into Afghanistan will be certain to have destabilizing effects on the country, it could even threaten the Taliban’s grip on power. For Pakistan, a weak and therefore pliant Taliban is exactly what it desires. But for a militant group that has fought for control of the country for so long, this outcome is unacceptable. The Taliban government’s spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, had previously taken to X, formerly Twitter, to urge Pakistan to reconsider its decision. 

As Pakistan remains steadfast in its refusal to postpone the deportations, the Taliban may resort to more extreme acts to force its neighbor’s hand. Afghanistan could refuse to accept any more repatriations, blocking border crossings and leaving thousands of Afghan refugees stranded in Pakistan’s hinterlands. The resulting images of desperation and confusion will fuel even more outrage toward Islamabad. It is also a given that support for the TTP will increase in retaliation, with the Taliban hoping that further violence will force Kakar’s hand. What is certain, however, is that once the dust settles, Pakistan will find itself in a far worse position than it was in to begin with.

Marcus Andreopoulos is a Senior Research Fellow at the international policy assessment group, the Asia-Pacific Foundation, and a Subject Matter Expert with the Global Threats Advisory Group at NATO’s Defence Education Enhancement Programme. Marcus is currently pursuing a PhD in international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

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This piece was written for Greek City Times by a Guest Contributor

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