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Pakistan: Afghans facing deportation seek legal help

Jamila Achakzai in Islamabad
October 27, 2023

As Pakistan's deportation deadline for undocumented migrants nears, Afghans who have lived there for decades are looking for avenues toward the right to remain in the country.

People and bags near a yellow bus
Afghans prepare to leave Karachi after Pakistan announced a deportation planImage: Sabir Mazhar/AA/picture alliance

Deen Muhammad was born in Pakistan several years after his parents fled Afghanistan in 1982 and settled in a village near Islamabad.

However, the 32-year-old Pashtun street vendor now fears deportation after Pakistan's caretaker government in early October announced that Afghan nationals living in Pakistan without legal documentation had a November 1 deadline to leave voluntarily.

"My roots may be in Afghanistan, but in reality, I'm a son of this soil [Pakistan]," he told DW. "My wife and my four children are also Pakistanis by birth, and we've documents to prove that," he added.

Muhammad said he contacted a lawyer to petition a high court to be legally recognized as Pakistani.

Since the Pakistani government announced the deportation measure, Muhammad said his wife and children are so afraid of being arrested, that they avoid leaving the house.

Shireen Gula fled Afghanistan's Helmand Province with her family after Russia invaded the country in 1979. They have lived in Pakistan's northwestern Balochistan province ever since, working in orchards, and as housekeepers for farmers.

Although they have lived for decades in Pakistan, they too now fear deportation.

"We never felt the need for residency documentation. Our life is limited to the area and we were never bothered by law-enforcement agencies," she told DW.

"But now, we're really worried as Pakistani authorities look committed to repatriating undocumented foreigners," she added.

The middle-aged Pashtun mother of six children, all born in Pakistan, said her family has no property in Afghanistan to return to. She complained about a lack of information about legal matters, especially their rights as refugees.

The government has accused Afghan nationals of being complicit in a series of militant attacks in Pakistan.

Civil society activist Bashir Hussain Shah told DW that Afghan refugees have become victims of Pakistan's tensions with the Taliban in Afghanistan, which Islamabad sees as being "culpable" for militant attacks on Pakistani soil.

What is the legal situation for Afghans in Pakistan?

Saifullah Muhib Kakakhel, a high court lawyer in the northwestern city of Peshawar, told DW that anyone who was born in Pakistan, married to a Pakistani citizen, or has lived in the country on a visa for seven years within a 12-year period, is entitled to become a Pakistani citizen.

Pakistan: Deportation deadline looms for 'illegal' Afghans

He said that migrants who fall into those categories have the right to legally appeal deportation orders.

"Lack of awareness [of the Pakistan Citizenship Act, 1951] is a major issue of our Afghan brothers and sisters," he said. "They need to fight their case."

Kakakhel said more and more Afghans born in Pakistan, or married to a Pakistani, were approaching courts for orders against possible repatriation.

Pakistan's Interior Ministry says 4.4 million Afghans live in the country, and around 1.7 million do not have legal documents to remain. Most of them live in the southwestern Balochistan and northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces, which border Afghanistan.

Pakistan has set up several deportation centers around the country undocumented Afghans found past the deadline. From these "mass transit camps," deportees will be taken to border crossing points for handover to Afghan authorities, according to Interior Ministry officials.

Law enforcement agencies are currently collecting details on Afghan migrants and refugees across the country. As the eviction deadline is less than a week away, more and more are returning to Afghanistan.

Azam Khan, the caretaker chief minister for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, said the region would have three deportation centers. More than 60,000 Afghans have returned home since the deportation policy was announced, he said.

Rights groups question legality of deportation

The deportation plan, which was only announced a little more than three weeks ago, has been met with heavy skepticism over the practicality of expecting hundreds of thousands of people to relocate on such short notice.

"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," Pakistani analyst Zahid Hussain told DW earlier in October after the plan was announced.

Maheen Paracha, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), an independent watchdog, said the Pakistani state was bound by the universal customary "law of non-refoulement," which forbids the deportation of foreigners to a place where they would face a real risk of persecution, torture, ill-treatment, or a threat to their life.

"The state must devise a policy that protects the fundamental rights of refugees in line with its obligations under an agreement with Afghanistan and the United Nations refugee agency [UNHCR] instead of forcibly expelling them. Humanitarian concerns must always supersede security concerns in this regard," she told DW.

Border closings show tensions between Taliban and Pakistan

A UNHCR spokesperson said that the organization was in contact with Pakistani authorities to advocate a "comprehensive and sustained mechanism to manage and register" Afghans whose freedom and lives could be at risk in Afghanistan after deportation.

Since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, the human rights situation in the country has deteriorated.

"Afghanistan is going through a severe humanitarian crisis with several rights challenges, particularly for women and girls. Such plans would have serious implications for all those forced to leave the country. They may face serious protection risks on repatriation," UNHCR spokesperson in Pakistan Qaiser Khan Afridi told DW.

Edited by: Wesley Rahn