NEW DELHI: Pakistan will start cracking down on undocumented immigrants, including nearly 2 million Afghan nationals, from November 1. Islamabad had announced on October 3 that it wanted all undocumented immigrants to leave by November 1, or else face arrest and deportation.
“Only two days are left for a volunteer return,” the caretaker government’s interior minister, Sarfraz Bugti, said in a video statement on Tuesday.
Islamabad said deportation will be orderly, carried out in phases and start with those who have criminal records. Authorities have vowed raids in areas suspected of housing “undocumented foreigners” after Wednesday.
Authorities have already set up “holding centres” to process deportees before they return to Afghanistan.
If Pakistan’s authorities possess the will and the means, their declaration that all irregular foreign migrants and refugees must leave the country by November 1 or be expelled will force one of the biggest human movements in South Asia’s troubled modern history, said The Economist.
There are around 4 million Afghans living in Pakistan out of which 1.7 million are undocumented.
Why is Pakistan deporting Afghans?
Analysts say rising militancy, an economic crisis and souring relations between the Taliban government in Afghanistan and Pakistan are behind the mass eviction.
Pakistan’s government said the deportation of Afghans they say are living illegally in Pakistan is driven by a security crisis, after a spike in the number of attacks in Pakistan’s border regions over recent months.
“There have been 24 suicide attacks since January, 14 of these 24 were carried by Afghan nationals,” Bugti told reporters when he announced the eviction order at the start of October.
Pakistan has accused the Taliban government of giving safe haven to militant groups it says are behind the attacks, such as the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) — a separate group from the Afghan Taliban but with a shared ideology.
“The Taliban government is not really listening to Pakistan about the TTP’s presence on its soil. Pakistan wants them to be contained and the Taliban are unable and unwilling to do so,” political analyst Hasan Askari based in Islamabad told AFP.
Pakistan is also in the grips of a debilitating economic crisis, and the deportation orders have found praise from ordinary Pakistanis, who curse Afghans of “stealing” jobs. In Karachi, Pakistanis are buying property from distressed Afghan sellers, forced to leave in a hurry, at cruelly low prices.
With the deportation of 2 million Afghans, Pakistan is hoping to see a reduction in its unemployment figures. The move, however, is unlikely to positively impact Pakistan’s inflation rate, which is one of the highest in south Asia.
Observers say Pakistanis have been generally supportive of sending back undocumented Afghans, with a protracted refugee presence putting a heavy burden on the country’s infrastructure.
What do the refugees say?
Maroza Bibi and her children are among hundreds of Afghans waiting at the Pakistani border, hurriedly leaving a country she has called home for decades in fear of arrest.
“I am taking a lot of good memories. I was expecting Pakistan to give us nationality, but that did not happen, compelling us to go back almost empty-handed,” Bibi, 52, told AFP at the Torkham crossing in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
She was around 10 years old when her family fled the Soviet war in Afghanistan, settling in Pakistan where she raised a family and where her husband is buried.
Zulfiqar Khan was born to refugee parents in a sprawling Peshawar aid camp, where generations of Afghans have settled in semi-permanent homes. Like many others AFP spoke with, he knew little about the documentation process and believed he would eventually be granted Pakistani nationality.
“To avoid any humiliation by the Pakistani authorities I have decided to leave,” he told AFP at the border. “I am leaving Pakistan with a heavy heart and a state of acute mental stress. I have no idea about life in Afghanistan, I know nothing about any possibility of re-starting my business there.”
“Everyone is frightened of arrest and deportation,” Fazal Ahmed, a 40-year-old fruit vendor who came to Pakistan when he was four years old. “I consider myself Pakistani as I have never been back to Afghanistan, but now we are counting down the days in fear.”
“Our money is stuck here. All our lifetime earnings and savings are stranded here. We have established businesses here, but they don’t care,” said Karachi camp resident Khan Mohammad, pleading for authorities to give Afghans more time to leave.
What is the Taliban’s reaction?
The Kabul authorities have condemned the deportation order as “cruel and barbaric”, and warned it will further dent relations with Islamabad.
“Pakistan’s expectations of the Taliban regime (about security) have not been fulfilled and (Pakistani authorities) have decided to use this as one instrument to pressurise them,” Muhammad Amir Rana, a security and political analyst and director of Pak Institute for Peace Studies.
The mass return of Afghan refugees and a tightening of legal crossings for trade will also put pressure on Afghanistan’s fragile economy, which is heavily reliant on international aid. Critics say Afghan refugees are paying the price for a falling out between the two governments.
Why are there so many Afghans in Pakistan?
Pakistan is one of the world’s largest refugee-hosting countries, with millions of Afghans pouring into Pakistan over decades of successive wars to seek refuge.
The majority live in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province which neighbours Afghanistan, and which has a shared Pashtun ethnicity.
According to the UN’s refugee agency, at least 6,00,000 Afghans fled for Pakistan after the Taliban returned to power in August 2021.
Pakistan has no domestic legal framework for refugees and is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, leaving migrant and refugee Afghans vulnerable to changing policies.
(With inputs from agencies)