Pakistan’s government said it has reached its limit and cannot accept more Afghan refugees as the threat of violence looms in Afghanistan.
Pakistani officials are demanding that the world make arrangements for the refugees inside Afghanistan, amid fears that millions of Afghans may be forced to flee into neighboring countries if fighting between Taliban and Afghan government forces intensified or deteriorated into a civil war.
“As a matter of fact, we are not in position to accept any more refugees,” Pakistan’s National Security Adviser Moeed Yusuf told VOA in a one-on-one interview.
Almost 3 million Afghan refugees, half of them unregistered, have been living in Pakistan since the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and subsequent waves of violence and later a civil war, according to the U.N.
“We are willing to help but we are in no position to take in new refugees this time around. The international forces and the U.N. should make arrangements for them inside Afghanistan,” Yusuf said.
Yusuf said there needs to be an effort to prepare for the refugees, highlighting his government's policy.
“If such a situation arises, then the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, should set up camps for the refugees on the Afghan side of the border,” he said.
At present, there are two key border crossings between Pakistan and Afghanistan — Chaman in Balochistan and Torkham in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — apart from several small trading points.
Of the 2,640-kilometer boundary with Afghanistan, Pakistan has fenced nearly 90% and deployed the army and the Frontier Constabulary, a militia under the federal interior ministry, to man it.
Yusuf said that because the countries share a long border and the terrain allows crossings on foot or mules, Pakistan cannot begin to enumerate the threats and fallout of a civil war in Afghanistan.
“There are fears that members of the banned terror outfits like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (the TTP or Pakistani Taliban) might enter Pakistan from Afghanistan in the guise of refugees and create unrest in the country,” he said. The Pakistani Taliban are based in Afghanistan but differ from the Afghan Taliban.
He also expressed concern that India, Pakistan’s eastern neighbor with whom it has a hostile relationship, might use this opportunity against his country.
“We have evidence about the involvement of India in terrorist activities in Pakistan by using the Afghan soil,” he said. “Movement of such a large number of refugees could provide the Indian agencies a chance to infiltrate into Pakistan.”
Pakistan’s army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, and the head of the intelligence agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, told the national security committee of the parliament earlier this month that Pakistan feared a new civil war in Afghanistan.
They said that Pakistan estimated it would receive as many as 700,000 new refugees in the first year alone, a parliament member present in the briefing told VOA on the condition of anonymity because the briefing was private.
Last month, in an interview with The New York Times, Prime Minister Imran Khan said Pakistan would not open its borders to refugees if the situation deteriorated in Afghanistan.
In a worst-case scenario, Pakistan plans to settle the refugees in camps along the border with Afghanistan to prevent them from settling in Pakistan, a senior official of the Interior Ministry who wasn’t authorized to speak to the media told VOA on condition of anonymity.
UNHCR Pakistan spokesperson Qaiser Khan Afridi said the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan was concerning and added that the government of Pakistan has not yet shared with the agency its policy regarding a new influx of Afghan refugees.
“The UNHCR is constantly in consultation with the government of Pakistan and would devise it's strategy according to the policy of the Pakistan government,” Afridi said.
Afridi didn’t predict the number of refugees but said if refugees came in large numbers, it would be difficult for Pakistan to handle them without the support of the international community.
He said that UNHCR was ready to assist the government of Pakistan in the process of registration, providing them shelter and basic necessities.
Pakistani authorities say they have been hosting millions of refugees even though they are not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Optional Protocol for refugees.
U.S. President Joe Biden on Friday announced that the U.S. would complete the troop withdrawal in Afghanistan by August 31, nearly 20 years after the U.S. led an invasion of the country following al-Qaida's attack on the U.S., September 11, 2001.
Al-Qaida’s top leadership was based in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban who refused to give them up, leading to the invasion.
Biden also said it was up to the people and the leadership of Afghanistan to decide their future.
The Taliban have intensified violence in Afghanistan in the last few months, especially since the start of the withdrawal of foreign forces two months ago.
This story originated from VOA’s Urdu service. Ayesha Tanzeem contributed to the report.