What's behind Pakistan's mass deportation of Afghan refugees?

6 min read
14 November, 2023

Last month Pakistan announced that it is speeding up efforts to deport undocumented foreign nationals living in the country, starting from 1 November.

The policy will primarily affect Afghan refugees, with more than 200,000 having already crossed over into Afghanistan and another 1.7 million remaining at risk of expulsion. Uncertain about their future in Afghanistan, most are reluctant to leave.

Even though there is widespread condemnation from various global human rights organisations working with refugees, Pakistani authorities began the deportation process as soon as the deadline ended.

Brushing off calls from the United Nations as well as Western embassies, Islamabad remains adamant in moving forward with its policy, alleging that the refugee population has become a security risk as it remains involved in militant attacks.

Immigrants are now being detained at a mass transit centre at Attock in the northern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Having planned to deport all unregistered, or ‘illegal’ residents, Islamabad is continuously gathering data in coordination with law enforcement agencies.

"Pakistan has hosted millions of Afghan refugees since the late 1970s and 1980s, and has struggled to address the social, economic, and security issues related to refugee populations over the years"

Ignoring pleas to reconsider mass deportations, the authorities have already set up more border centres to speed up the process.

"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 this month.

Pacha Khan, an Afghan refugee born and raised in Pakistan’s Dir district, said he is leaving behind many friends.

“I’m going there now, but I don’t know what will happen to me. It’s a place many of us have never even seen,” he said.

Pakistan has hosted millions of Afghan refugees since the late 1970s and 1980s and has struggled to address the social, economic and security issues related to refugee populations over the years.

Currently, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Pakistan is home to 3.7 million Afghan refugees, 800,000 of whom fled to Pakistan after the Taliban takeover of Kabul in 2021.

Since 2021, Islamabad has attempted to close its border with Afghanistan with little success.

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A rise in attacks

Over the past year, there has been a surge of militant attacks inside Pakistan, with most claimed by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a close ally of the Afghan Taliban. Pakistani authorities have blamed Afghan migrants in part for the rise in attacks.

Only last week, an air force base was attacked in Mianwali, the capital of the Punjab province, though most attacks take place near the long border with Afghanistan, where Islamabad says the TTP has safe-havens.

When the decision to deport refugees was announced, Interim Minister Sarfraz Bugti stated that out of the 24 suicide bombings in Pakistan this year, 14 were carried out by Afghan nationals.

The Taliban government in Kabul has denied involvement and has done little to allay Islamabad’s security concerns. Refusing to take back any refugees, Kabul also disapproves of Islamabad’s repatriation plan.

The Taliban government has struggled to cope with the situation of thousands of Afghan nations returning to the country, setting up temporary transit camps to provide food and medical assistance. Still, the situation at the border remains dire. 

As tempers rise, the Afghan interim Prime Minister Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund has criticised Pakistan’s decision to expel refugees, saying that Islamabad had violated international laws, while his deputy Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai has warned Pakistan “not to force their hand to react over the move”.

More than 200,000 Afghans have already fled Pakistan while another 1.7 million remain at risk of deportation. [Getty]
More than 200,000 Afghans have already fled Pakistan while another 1.7 million remain at risk of deportation. [Getty]

Diplomatic stalemate

With every passing day, long-standing relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan continue to sour, hitting a dead-end.

In a major policy shift, Pakistan has decided to no longer advocate for the Taliban government in Kabul on an international level, ending any “special privileges” extended to the regime and accusing their neighbours of failing to rein in the TTP and “harbouring enemies”.

Since Islamabad was the Taliban government’s main supporter, the chances of the government in Kabul getting international recognition have dropped drastically with this step.

However, the Pakistan Foreign Office has announced that a “channel of communication” would be maintained with Kabul notwithstanding the “misgivings”.

"In a major policy shift, Pakistan has decided to no longer advocate for the Taliban government in Kabul on an international level, ending any 'special privileges' extended to the regime"

“Obviously, Pakistan’s refoulement of Afghan refugees in the midst of the winter has created hardships for the refugees involved. Afghanistan is not prepared to absorb this number of returnees all at once. The most moderate elements in Afghan society are deeply disappointed with Pakistan’s decision,” Torek Farhadi, a senior regional analyst based in Geneva, told The New Arab.

Naveed Ali Sheikh, a military relations researcher and analyst based in Islamabad, told The New Arab, “There are two layers of Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan, Layer 1 are the visible ones, with Afghan refugee cards or similar identifications provided by the government, a temporary refugee status. Layer 2 are the illegal ones who are provided sanctuary by Layer 1.”

Parallel to deportations, Pakistan has also implemented several measures to tighten the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (ATTA), which critics say has been misused.

"[The] Afghan Free Transit trade is a big scam with almost all products bound for the meagre 20 million population of Afghanistan coming back into Pakistan as smuggled goods," Sheikh added.

This racket, whether through manufacturers evading custom duties, hoarding, currency manipulation or money laundering, has been blamed on illegal Afghan migrants.

Hostility is so deeply entrenched against Afghans that Jan Achakzai, caretaker minister in Balochistan province, has said that the expulsion of refugees would continue, “no matter which political government comes to power after the elections.” The tenure of the current caretaker government ends in February 2024.

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Regional implications

In the larger picture, as relations between Islamabad and Kabul go progressively downhill, there may be a delay in Beijing’s plans to extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) into Afghanistan. During his visit to Kabul in March, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi discussed Kabul’s inclusion in CPEC.

In May, the foreign ministers of Pakistan, China, and Afghanistan strengthened trilateral cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and reaffirmed their commitment to jointly extend the CPEC to Afghanistan.

Issuing a joint statement, the three FMs highlighted the benefits of connectivity for the economic development and prosperity of the region.

Only last month, both Islamabad and Beijing agreed to invite third parties to participate in the extension of CPEC to Afghanistan, making it a multibillion-dollar rail and road project.

 "As relations between Islamabad and Kabul go progressively downhill, there may be a delay in Beijing's plans to extend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor into Afghanistan"

But right now, Farhadi pointed out, “It will be very unpopular for any government in Afghanistan to refresh normal relations with Pakistan for a while as the return of refugees will be an unfolding crisis, the type Afghanistan has not seen before”.

Nevertheless, “China will understand this interruption in the extension of CPEC through Afghanistan,” he added.

In Iran, the government has adopted a similar approach to Afghan refugees and migrants in the country.

After it began forcibly deporting Afghan nationals, Tehran also earned criticism from the Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, who said, “Do not deport refugees by force and do not treat them illegally. Our message to Iran and Pakistan is to be tolerant of the migrants, not to be oppressive and stop the persecution”.

According to the Herat Department of Refugees and Repatriations, over 20,000 Afghan refugees were deported from Iran in the past week alone.

Sabena Siddiqui is a foreign affairs journalist, lawyer and geopolitical analyst specialising in modern China, the Belt and Road Initiative, Middle East and South Asia. 

Follow her on Twitter: @sabena_siddiqi