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Deportation Deadline Triggers Exodus of Afghans from Pakistan


Afghan refugee children sit on a truck loaded with belongings as they and their families prepare to return home, outside the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees repatriation centers in Azakhel town in Nowshera, Pakistan, Oct. 30, 2023.
Afghan refugee children sit on a truck loaded with belongings as they and their families prepare to return home, outside the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees repatriation centers in Azakhel town in Nowshera, Pakistan, Oct. 30, 2023.

Tens of thousands of Afghan migrants on trucks and other vehicles rushed to the border Tuesday, the last day of an official deadline for all foreigners without legal status to depart Pakistan voluntarily or face arrest and forcible expulsion.

Pakistani officials have reported that refugee families, many of them poverty-stricken, were returning to Afghanistan through Torkham and Chaman border crossings in the provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan. Both Pakistani provinces host the majority of Afghan refugees.

Authorities unleashed a crackdown on foreigners residing illegally in the country two months ago in the wake of a dramatic surge in deadly militant attacks and suicide bombings in Pakistan, with some blamed on Afghan nationals.

Amid the ongoing crackdown, Pakistan's Interior Minister Sarfaraz Bugti announced on October 3 that all migrants without legal status had until November 1 to leave or face deportation. He said at the time that an estimated 1.7 million Afghans were among those illegally residing in the country.

Since then, convoys of Afghan migrant families have been seen departing Pakistani cities, including Karachi, Quetta, Peshawar and the capital of Islamabad with whatever belongings they could take on the back of trucks.

In a video statement released Tuesday, Bugti said that authorities would begin rounding up and deporting foreigners without lawful status in what he stressed would be a “long and gradual” operation

Bugti told reporters on Monday that more than 200,000 migrants had left Pakistan and returned to Afghanistan over the past two months. He said that individuals who remain in the country past the deadline would be detained and held in designated "holding centers" before being transported to the nearest Afghan border crossing and repatriated.

On Tuesday, police in parts of the capital used mosque loudspeakers in residential areas housing Afghan asylum seekers to urge them to leave by the deadline to avoid being arrested.

Afghanistan's ruling Taliban have called on Pakistan to reconsider its deportation plan, decrying it as "inhumane" and "unacceptable." They also rejected allegations Afghan refugees were responsible for Pakistan’s security challenges.

The United Nations and human rights groups have warned Islamabad against forcing Afghans out and said it could expose them to retribution and abuses by the hardline Taliban.

"The Pakistani government is using threats, abuse and detention to coerce Afghan asylum seekers without legal status to return to Afghanistan or face deportation," Human Rights Watch said Tuesday.

The U.S.-based rights defender said that broad calls by Pakistani officials for mass deportation had instigated increased police abuse against Afghans, including harassment, assault and arbitrary detention.

"The situation in Afghanistan remains dangerous for many who fled, and deportation will expose them to significant security risks, including threats to their lives and well-being," the watchdog warned.

Pakistani officials have rejected calls for suspending the deportation plan.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mumtaz Zohra Baloch reiterated on Monday that the plan applies to all foreigners without legal status, irrespective of their nationality and country of origin. "The decision is in the exercise of Pakistan's sovereign domestic laws and compliant with applicable international norms and principles,” she said.

Pakistan has repeatedly stated that 1.4 million legally registered Afghan refugees and hundreds of thousands of documented economic migrants from Afghanistan are not subject to the crackdown.

Islamabad estimates that more than 700,000 Afghan men, women and children arrived in Pakistan after the Taliban takeover of their country two years ago, and a majority of them have either overstayed their visas or lack legal status.

However, officials stressed that Afghans who fled the country for their association with the United States-led foreign troops and are currently waiting for relocation to third countries do not need to worry about deportation.

On Tuesday, U.S. ambassador Donald Blome met with Pakistani caretaker foreign minister, Jalil Abbas Jilani, and discussed, among other issues, the “safety and efficient processing” of Afghans eligible for relocation or resettlement in the United States.

"The ambassador highlighted the two countries’ mutual interest in ensuring the safety and security of refugees and asylum seekers, and the importance of putting in place appropriate screening mechanisms so that individuals with legitimate claims of credible fear are not placed in harm’s way,” a U.S. embassy spokesman said in a post-meeting statement.

U.S. officials have shared with Pakistan a list of about 25,000 Afghan individuals who could be eligible for immigration to or resettlement in the United States.

Pakistan has hosted millions of Afghan refugees fleeing decades of conflict and persecution back home, making it the host of one of the world's largest refugee populations.

Pakistani officials maintain that the deportations are in line with their responsibility to ensure security of the country’s population of 241 million, where anti-Afghan sentiment has lately been growing amid an economic crisis and historic levels of inflation.

Taliban authorities say they have put in place emergency arrangements on the Afghan side of the border to provide temporary shelter, health care, food and other services to families returning voluntarily or are expected to be forced out of Pakistan after the November 1 deadline.

The U.S. and allied troops withdrew from Afghanistan in August 2021 when the Taliban seized power from an American-backed government in Kabul and established their men-only administration.

The Taliban have since imposed their harsh interpretation of Islamic law to govern the conflict-torn, impoverished South Asian nation. They have banned teenage girls from receiving an education beyond the sixth grade and most women from workplaces in government and private sectors.

No foreign government has recognized the Taliban over human rights concerns, especially their treatment of Afghan women.