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Can Pakistan deport 1.7 million Afghan refugees?

October 4, 2023

For decades, Pakistan has provided a haven for Afghan refugees escaping conflict and upheaval. Now, Afghans in Pakistan are being caught in tensions between Islamabad and Kabul over militant attacks.

Women in blue robes walk through a dusty street
Afghan women walk through a refugee camp in KarachiImage: Rizwan Tabassum/AFP/Getty Images

Pakistan on Tuesday said that 1.73 million Afghan nationals living in the country without legal documentation have a "November 1 deadline" to leave voluntarily, with the government claiming that Afghan nationals were responsible for 14 suicide bombings in Pakistan this year.

The Pakistani government said that those who did not leave voluntarily would be deported, although it was unclear how they could track who left or find those who did not.

"If they do not go ... then all the law enforcement agencies in the provinces or federal government will be utilized to deport them," caretaker Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti told reporters in Islamabad.

He added that the government would confiscate the property and assets of undocumented migrants, along with setting up a tip line for members of the public to turn in people suspected of being undocumented Afghan migrants.

However, Pakistani analyst Zahid Hussain told DW that he was skeptical whether authorities could implement the deportations.

"Pakistan will not manage to locate them as they are spread all over the country," he said. Hussain added that it would be difficult to pinpoint people for deportation as many have lived in Pakistan for a long time and have married Pakistani nationals.

"They may get some, but overall, it is difficult to differentiate," he added. "It will be difficult to track them down as Islamabad has adopted the policy of allowing them for the past 40 years, including during the US presence in Afghanistan, and suddenly this policy shift will not work."

Afghan refugees in Pakistan fear widespread crackdown

Pakistan's crackdown on Afghan migrants

Pakistan has previously detained Afghan refugees and sporadically deported them in small numbers.

However, this week's decision to deport undocumented Afghans represents a significant escalation. The move comes after months of heightened tension between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which has spilled over into a broader crackdown on Afghan refugees.

Among other things, Pakistan seeks to pressure the Taliban government in Kabul to curb the activities of the militant network Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which operates in the Afghan-Pakistan border regions and has been tied to attacks on Pakistani security forces and suicide bombings in Pakistan.

Qamar Cheema, a security analyst in Pakistan, told DW that the Pakistani government is concerned that the TTP and so-called "Islamic State" (IS) have recruited Afghan nationals in their groups.

"The attack on the Chitral border region and recent incursions in Balochistan are not possible without the support of Afghan nationals. The Afghan Taliban wants TTP to have sanctuaries in Pakistan," Cheema said.

The analyst added that Pakistani authorities are also trying to bolster security ahead of general elections, tentatively scheduled for January 2024.

Pakistan scholarship offers glimmer of hope to Afghan girls

However, civil society and refugee organizations say claiming Afghan refugees in Pakistan support militant attacks is mere propaganda.

The arrival of Afghan refugees in Pakistan has also been a growing concern for many locals. They see it as burdening the country's economy, straining its national resources and changing the demographics of their regions.

Also this week, Pakistan said it would require a valid passport and visa for entry from Afghanistan, dispensing with the practice of granting special travel permits to people from tribes divided by the border.

Pakistan a primary host for Afghan refugees

Pakistan remains one of the world's largest refugee host countries and has experienced multiple influxes of Afghan refugees. These span the period from the Soviet invasion in 1979 to the Taliban takeover in 2021, after which some 600,000 Afghan refugees fled to Pakistan.

However, the numbers of migrants and refugees vary depending on the source and can be hard to verify. 

The UN's refugee agency, the UNHCR, estimates a total of 3.7 million Afghans are living in Pakistan. Over 1.3 million are registered Afghan refugees. Another 840,000 hold an "Afghan Citizenship Card" (ACC). An estimated 775,000 are undocumented, and 600,000 are new arrivals since August 2021.

The opaque legal status of many Afghan migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers in Pakistan regarding documentation is also demonstrated by the difference in statistics provided by the UN and Pakistani authorities, who estimate 4.4 million Afghans are in Pakistan, among them 1.7 million "undocumented."

Afghan boxer fights for a new life in Pakistan

Caretaker Interior Minister Bugti has said Afghans who have registered with Pakistani authorities need not fear deportation, but it can be unclear who falls into this category.

The entry and presence of refugees is governed under Pakistan's Foreigners Act, which grants authorities the right to apprehend, detain and expel foreigners, including refugees and asylum-seekers, who lack valid documentation.

While registered refugees in Pakistan are offered limited protection, undocumented Afghans are exposed to arrest, detention and deportation. The UN has called for a halt to forced returns of Afghan nationals.

Moniza Kakar, a lawyer providing legal aid to Afghan refugees in Karachi, said there have been several waves of crackdowns on refugees in the past two years, especially after relations deteriorated between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"Typically, refugees without visas or legal documentation face deportation to Afghanistan, and some families resort to bribing law enforcement," Kakar told DW.

She also claimed that police have carried out arrests of Afghans who were living legally in Pakistan after confiscating their registration and Afghan citizenship cards. 

Afghan refugees protest in Pakistan
Afghan refugees say they face human rights violations under the TalibanImage: SH.R/DW

What do returnees face?

According to UN estimates, only 8,000 refugees returned to Afghanistan in 2023, 95% from Pakistan.

Farooq Khan, a former Afghan police officer from Kandahar province, sought refuge in Karachi two weeks before the Taliban captured Kabul in August 2021.

The recent crackdown in Pakistan has instilled fear in him due to his expired visa, leaving him residing illegally and vulnerable to deportation.

"I have limited my outdoor activities due to fears of arrest during the ongoing crackdown," Khan told DW.

He said he feared being forcibly returned to Afghanistan, where he could face imprisonment or worse under the Taliban administration due to his involvement with the former government.

Afghan police officer who fled Taliban harassed abroad

The UNHCR has said on its website that returning refugees to Afghanistan receive basic health care, overnight accommodation when needed and other services.

"As part of its support to refugees voluntarily returning home from countries of asylum. UNHCR offers a voluntary repatriation package consisting of a one-off cash grant of $375 to cover transportation and immediate needs upon arrival."

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the UN's refugee agency, the UNHCR, as the UN's human rights agency, which is the UN-OHCHR. 

With reporting from Zia Ur Rehman in Karachi and Haroon Janjua in Islamabad.

Edited by: Shamil Shams

Wesley Rahn Editor and reporter focusing on geopolitics and Asia