Afghans forced to leave Pakistan gather at a makeshift camp near the border. Pakistan has blamed Afghan nationals for recent militant attacks and is looking to pressure the Taliban government to crack down on the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan. Photo: IMAGO / ABACAPRESS
Afghans forced to leave Pakistan gather at a makeshift camp near the border. Pakistan has blamed Afghan nationals for recent militant attacks and is looking to pressure the Taliban government to crack down on the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan. Photo: IMAGO / ABACAPRESS

Pakistan brings down the axe on Afghan migrants

A crackdown on undocumented migrants is forcing thousands back to uncertain fates in Afghanistan, and ratcheting up tensions between Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban

Manzoor Ali is a journalist based in Peshawar.

On the grey afternoon of 1 November, two buses carrying undocumented Afghan migrants pulled up in front of a beige block in an unoccupied housing colony on the outskirts of Peshawar with a police escort. Their arrival set off a commotion as officials and media personnel rushed towards the vehicles, and a media scrum surrounded an official who emerged from one of the escort cars. Inside the bus, the migrants watched on unmoved with weary faces. They were just out of Peshawar's central jail, where they were being held for entering Pakistan illegally or overstaying their visas, and had been rushed to a hurriedly set up processing zone at the colony before deportation to their homeland. The Pakistan government's deadline for undocumented migrants to leave the country voluntarily or face detention and deportation had just passed on 31 October. The processing centre, one of three in the northwest of Pakistan, was still being readied to hold migrants before they were sent to Afghanistan. Workers could still be seen rigging up generators and fixing the water supply.

About half an hour after the buses arrived, authorities started to process the migrants for deportation. They disembarked from the buses in pairs and were taken to officials of the Federal Investigation Agency in a ground-floor room, then to a van with biometric equipment operated by the National Database and Registration Authority. After they emerged, each with a piece of paper in hand, they were taken to a nearby police truck, which was to take them to the Torkham border crossing, roughly fifty kilometres to the west.

Zakirullah, aged 27 and from the Khogyani area near the Afghan city of Jalalabad, another 75 kilometres or so beyond the border, was among those being deported that day. He had spent several weeks behind bars. Zakir used to sell vegetables from a pushcart on the outskirts of Peshawar until he was arrested and had spent several weeks behind bars. The Afghans pulled from the prison that day were showered and garlanded with marigold flowers and offered sweets before they were put on the buses that brought them to the processing centre – a perverse gesture, usually reserved for happy occasions, presumably meant to celebrate their journey home even though the migrants themselves were in no mood to celebrate.

Zakir was simultaneously teary-eyed and angry as he awaited the trip to the border. "We were really treated badly in jail and I will not forget it," he said. I pushed him for details of what had happened, but he would only say, "It was really harsh." Zakir said he had planned to eventually make his way to Türkiye and then sneak into Europe, but the Pakistan government's crackdown on Afghan migrants had disrupted his plans."I have no plans to return to Pakistan after going through all this and maltreatment at jail," he said.

Also at the processing centre was Mullah Abdullah, aged 50, from Kunduz province in northern Afghanistan. A jolly fellow with a short-trimmed white beard and wearing a skullcap, he was working as a baker making tandoor bread in Peshawar when the police rounded him up for illegal entry into Pakistan. He had spent 22 days in prison. Mullah said his family had also been in Pakistan, but they had left for Afghanistan on the last day before the Pakistan government's deadline. They had paid PKR 250,000 – roughly USD 900 – for the trip back. "I will hopefully join them tomorrow," Mullah said.

The consul in Karachi for the Taliban, which heads the Afghan government, has said that nearly 400,000 have returned from Pakistan to Afghanistan in the last two months.

This is how Pakistan is turning from more than four decades of hosting Afghan migrants and refugees to one of the largest episodes of mass deportation in its history. Especially since the deadline for voluntary return expired, thousands are reportedly leaving for Afghanistan every day in the face of impending arrests and deportations. The consul in Karachi for the Taliban, which heads the Afghan government, has said that nearly 400,000 have returned from Pakistan to Afghanistan in the last two months. Before the deportation drive, Pakistan hosted roughly 4 million Afghan refugees, with some 1.7 million of them thought to be undocumented. Between 600,000 and 800,000 are thought to have fled to Pakistan after the fall of republican rule in Afghanistan and the return of Taliban power in August 2021 – including musicians, former servicemen, human-rights activists and others at high risk of being targeted by the repressive and puritanical Taliban regime.

The deportation drive, announced in early October, comes in the aftermath of a months-long string of militant attacks on Pakistani soil, mostly claimed by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The TTP, affiliated with the Afghan Taliban now in power in Kabul, has safe havens across the border, and the Pakistani authorities have consistently blamed Afghan nationals for carrying out militant attacks in recent months. The Afghan Taliban's inability or reluctance to crack down on the TTP despite pressure from Islamabad has soured relations between the two countries and apparently precipitated the Pakistan government's deportation push – a potent method to pile pressure on Afghanistan's Taliban regime. But with that regime struggling to provide even the bare necessities of survival to Afghanistan's poverty-ravaged population – last winter, for instance, huge numbers of Afghans struggled to heat their homes – Pakistan's move smacks of cruel collective punishment, sending people back to harsh and uncertain fates and risking more bad blood in the future.

Repatriation plans drawn up by the provincial governments in Khyber Pakhtunkhwah and Sindh show that the Pakistani authorities consider the presence of large numbers of undocumented Afghans both a security risk and an economic burden. The Sindh government's plan states that the presence of "illegal foreigners could have serious repercussions on the provincial security, economy, land holding and demography." The Khyber Pakhtunkhwah government's plan also makes sweeping claims about Afghans living in Pakistan and states, "Repeatedly most of them are involved in criminal/drug tariffing, gun running and terrorist activities."

The deportation drive of Afghans in Pakistan, announced in early October, comes in the aftermath of a months-long string of militant attacks on Pakistani soil, mostly claimed by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan.

Many Afghans sheltering in Pakistan are awaiting resettlement in other countries, including in the West, while many others have applied for asylum due to threats to their lives back in Afghanistan. The deportation drive has often been brutal and indiscriminate. According to the Human Rights Watch, "The Pakistani government is using threats, abuse, and detention to coerce Afghan asylum seekers without legal status to return to Afghanistan or face deportation." 

Pakistan is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Even so, it welcomed huge numbers of Afghan refugees following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. When the Nobel-prize-winning writer Doris Lessing visited Peshawar in 1986, she noted that the city's population had nearly doubled in the seven years that Afghan refugees had been pouring in. "There are now more than three and half million refugees, mostly around Peshawar," Lessing wrote. 

Voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees was part of the Geneva Accord of 1988, a tripartite agreement signed towards the end of the Soviet invasion between Pakistan, the Afghan government and the UNHCR. But peace in Afghanistan and the repatriation of refugees both proved elusive, and civil war in the 1990s pushed yet more people into exile. The same trend continued with the ascendency of Taliban power in 1996 and the brutal reign that followed. The fall of the Taliban and the war on terror in the 2000s, which brought the US invasion of Afghanistan, again pushed thousands to flee their homes, with many of them heading for Pakistan. 

While a minority of affluent Afghans rented homes in Pakistan, the poor majority were lodged in refugee camps across the country, most of them concentrated in the northwest. Those who could neither afford rented homes nor find space in the camps were forced to make do however and wherever they could. The US invasion of Afghanistan brought with it a spillover of militancy into Pakistan as the Taliban and others looked for safe havens across the border, exacerbated by a complicated relationship between them and the Pakistani security establishment. This soon brought extra scrutiny on Afghans in Pakistan that only compounded the miseries. "In Peshawar, Quetta and Karachi, Afghan refugees are regularly rounded by the authorities on charges of Taliban connections," a 2009 report from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) stated. In fact, in the mid-2000s, Pakistan closed down many refugee camps alleging that they harboured al-Qaeda fighters as well. 

Repatriation plans drawn up by the provincial governments in Khyber Pakhtunkhwah and Sindh show that the Pakistani authorities consider the presence of large numbers of undocumented Afghans both a security risk and an economic burden.

Also during this period, souring relations between Kabul and Islamabad and the security dilemmas of the Pakistan government in the face of raging militancy sealed the fate of many of the refugee camps. According to the HRCP report, a tripartite commission of the Pakistan and Afghan governments and the UNHCR decided to shut down the Jalozai and Kacha Garhi camps in Khyber Pakhtunkhwah, as well as the Jungle Pir Alizai and Girdi Jungle camps in Balochistan. Authorities served notices to more than 250,000 refugees, many living in these old camps for decades. The HRCP also detailed the coercive measures employed against the refugees, turning their supposed repatriation into effective deportation, as the majority of Afghans in Pakistan did not want to go back. "It now seems that Islamabad has embarked on a deliberate policy to push refugees out in an aggressive manner by making conditions difficult for them," the HRCP report said.

In December 2014, Pakistan's government and political leadership agreed on the National Action Plan (NAP) to root out militancy and terrorism from the country in the aftermath of an attack on an army school in Peshawar which left 144 students dead. The NAP called for framing a comprehensive policy for the registration and deportation of Afghan refugees. Though deportations increased after this, still no concrete, workable plan for refugees came into place. Even as the closure of refugee camps and a post-NAP crackdown compelled many Afghans to return to their homeland, many others continued to arrive in Pakistan. "Between 2002 and 2018 a massive 4,374,208 Afghans left Afghanistan for Pakistan – although some are assumed to have migrated, again, out from Afghanistan and others are suspected to have returned to Pakistan," the political scientist Sanaa Alimia notes in her recent book Refugee Cities: How Afghans Changed Urban Pakistan. And that was before the fall of the republican government in Kabul in 2021 pushed another wave of refugees across the border. 

It is not just undocumented Afghans who are being affected by the current deportation drive. In the Urdu daily Nawaiwaqt, the senior journalist Nusrat Javeed wrote that around 90 Pakistani Pashtuns were rounded up by the police in the province of Punjab on suspicion of being Afghans. In Peshawar, home to a large and settled Afghan population, even documented Afghans are feeling targeted.

Many Afghans sheltering in Pakistan are awaiting resettlement in other countries, including in the West, while many others have applied for asylum due to threats to their lives back in Afghanistan.

Board Bazaar, one of the most crowded parts of the city, was set up on both sides of a canal by enterprising Afghan migrants. Today it is also known as Chota Kabul, or Little Kabul, after the large number of Afghans who do business here. In October, Peshawar's district administration conducted a huge anti-encroachment operation in the area and pulled down nearly 400 illegally built shops. Many Afghans accused the authorities of executing the demolition drive to scare them into leaving Pakistan.

"They did this to us on purpose as authorities want us to leave," Zahid, a local vegetable seller, said. He complained that the authorities had thrown his vegetables into the canal and taken away his pushcart. Khalid, an Afghan refugee who sells cheese in Board Bazaar, said he lost more than PKR 40,000 in the anti-encroachment drive. He said his family had been living in Pakistan for the past 15 years, but the situation now was increasingly difficult, including for registered and documented refugees.

A cruel, misogynistic joke circulating on social media in Pakistan captures the awful reality: "If you have really grown sick of your wife then call the police station and tell them she is an Afghan national. Then let the police figure out where the Afghan border is."

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Himal Southasian
www.himalmag.com