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November 5, 2023

The deadline for voluntary return for illegal Afghan refugees expires

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fghan refugees continue to leave Pakistan after the expiry of the October 31 deadline for the voluntary return of illegal aliens.

Thousands of Afghan families have already crossed the border into their homeland. The deadline and the ultimatum were addressed only to foreign citizens living in Pakistan without any legal documents. The government says more than four million foreigners currently live in Pakistan; a vast majority of them are Afghan nationals.

Some of these Afghan citizens had made their way to Pakistan after the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion destabilised the country.

More recently, after the Taliban regained power in 2021, between 600,000 and 800,000 Afghans migrated to Pakistan. The Pakistani authorities claim that nearly 1.7 million of those Afghans are undocumented.

Local sources in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan say nearly 100,000 Afghan immigrants have voluntarily gone back to their country during October.

Interior Minister Sarfaraz Bugti has denied that the repatriation drive is targeting Afghans only. “Most of the undocumented people are from Afghanistan. However, the impression that only people from Afghanistan are being sent back is wrong. The government is setting up deportation centres in all four provinces to detain foreigners until they are sent back. There is transit camp in Landikotal, close to the Torkham border crossing,” he told reporters. “There will be no compromise on illegal refugees. We have information on those staying illegally in Pakistan. We are going door to door. We have done geo-fencing. We will detain and deport them. We have arrested dozens of people across the country, including in the capital.”

During police roundups, a majority of those who lacked legal documents were found to be Afghan citizens. After the Taliban forces marched on Kabul, many Afghan citizens wishing to go to Western countries were advised to reach Pakistan and contact the embassies of those countries. After August 15, 2021, thousands of citizens who had taken up jobs with US forces and their allies; or had served in the Afghan National Army or police; or been associated with some security organisation reached Pakistan. Most of these people had arrived in Pakistan on short visas. Meanwhile, when Russia attacked Ukraine, the priorities of these Western countries changed. As the flow of refugees from Ukraine increased, the Afghan citizens became a lesser priority. This resulted in delay of their evacuation from Pakistan. Meanwhile, their Pakistani visas expired. “We set a deadline for the Afghans who are supposed be relocated to some Western countries. If they are not taken to the West by the deadline, we have to declare them illegal refugees, then detain and deport them,” said Bugti.

However, thousands of other Afghans had also reached Pakistan illegally hoping that they might get a chance to get humanitarian visas to Western countries. Most of them had crossed the border at Torkham or Chaman.

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During police roundups, a majority of those who lacked legal documents were found to be Afghan citizens. As Taliban forces marched on Kabul, many Afghan citizens desiring to go to Western countries were advised to contact the embassies of those countries in Pakistan.
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When the government announced that it was launching a crackdown, some of the Afghan refugees who had been under UNHCR documentation and protection for decades felt uneasy. Even the Proof of Registration cardholders were worried. As the deadline approached, many Afghan citizens who had either entered Pakistan illegally or whose visas had expired started their journey back home.

The worst sufferers in all this have been women who were part of the Afghan police and army under the previous government. Their vulnerability stems from having fought against the Afghan Taliban. Girls who had been studying in colleges and universities at the time of Taliban takeover are also acknowledged as vulnerable. Many of them fear that they might be forced into early marriages. That was the reason that the Human Rights Watch issued a statement: “The situation in Afghanistan remains dangerous for many who fled. Deportation will expose them to significant security risks, including threats to their lives and well-being.”

The UN also admits this. The UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, and the International Organisation for Migration said Pakistan’s plans had created “serious protection risks” for women and girls forced to leave. Restrictions in Afghanistan, especially on female NGO workers, have led to shrinking employment opportunities for women there.

As far as affairs on the other side of the border are concerned the current regime has set up temporary camps in the Nangarhar and Kandahar provinces.

The Taliban government in Afghanistan has said some 60,000 Afghans returned from Pakistan between September 23 and October 22.

“Currently, the number of those returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan is three times higher than the recent average,” Taliban refugee ministry spokesman Abdul Mutaleb Haqqani told the media on October 26.

Pakistan’s stance on illegal aliens is legal and justified. However, the ongoing evacuation will affect the relations between the two countries. Although there has been no direct statement by the Afghan Taliban about the people returning to their homeland, they are known at one stage to have stopped issuing passports to prevent people from leaving the country.

Confusion still persists over Pakistan’s plans over the coming days and weeks. Interior Minister Sarfaraz Bugti was understood to have implied that some of the refugees registered with the UNHCR or are having Proof of Registration Card could face deportation. However, Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar has said that not a single legal refugee had been forced to leave Pakistan.

The writer is a Peshawar-based journalist, researcher and trainer. He also works for the digital media platform The Khorasan Diary

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