Afghan children are a pawn in Pakistan's migrant mass exodus
Buses packed with Afghan children, women and men queued up on a street in Karachi, the largest city in Pakistan, on a smoggy November evening.
The gigantic vehicles, carrying scores of people, were lined up to enter the Pakistan Boy Scouts Association premises which, the Government of Pakistan has turned into a temporary detention centre, also being referred to as a transit or holding centre.
This one, located in a largely Pashtun-populated area, was one of the 49 facilities that Pakistan's incumbent caretaker administration has set up across the country to accommodate what it terms “illegal foreigners”, most of whom happen to be Afghans.
All of these people were being brought to this centre to be deported to Afghanistan, after Pakistan decided it was now time for them to leave, for good.
"So far, over 200,000 Afghans have already left Pakistan through its western two borders — Torkham and Chaman — in what is being termed as a mass exodus"
In the last four decades, Pakistan has housed around 4 million Afghans, as they continued to flee their motherland in the wake of the Soviet-Afghan war in 1979.
More migrants continued to make their journey to Pakistan in search of better opportunities and economic prospects. Many, however, also kept going back to Afghanistan.
Several, however, fled Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban’s return to power or what many terms as the ‘Fall of Kabul’ in 2021, after the United States ended its longest 20-year war in the country and handed Afghanistan back to the religio-political group as a result of the deal.
Many of these migrants fled their homeland to save their lives and futures, which would remain at risk under the ultra-conservative Taliban.
Among these, those who came to Pakistan seeking refuge were either here for good or waiting in transit until being allowed entry by another country, preferably those in the West or Europe.
Over 200,000 Afghans return to Afghanistan
On October 3, the Pakistani government made an announcement that disseminated sheer panic and fear among all migrants, even the refugees who were registered with the country’s National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) through the Proof of Registration (PoR) Card and the Afghan Citizenship Card (ACC).
The government asked them to leave before November 1 or be prepared for forced expulsion and deportation. With immense confusion shrouding the announcement for an entire month, the government kept changing the terminologies that it used to refer to these illegal foreigners which also included the terms alien and illegal immigrant or migrant.
This decision — unanimously agreed upon by the interim set-up and the country’s military just months ahead of the next general elections in February 2024 — came in response to curbing the growing terrorism in Pakistan with the “involvement of Afghans” and the “use of Afghan soil”.
Weeks ahead of this deadline, several Afghans were arrested and taken into custody by Pakistan’s law enforcement authorities, according to the country’s civil society and human rights lawyers. Many of those arrested and those returning to Afghanistan as the deadline approached also happened to be children.
So far, over 200,000 Afghans have already left Pakistan through its western two borders — Torkham and Chaman — in what is being termed a mass exodus.
The Pakistani authorities said thousands continue to leave the country’s territories each day following its orders to deport up to 1.7 million “illegal migrants” who have been residing in the country without any identification or documentation.
On November 7, alone, 5,085 Afghans left for Afghanistan, out of which 1,475 were men, 420 were women and 2,190 were children.
The buses which entered the transit centre in Karachi were visibly packed with women and children in majority. Two little girls dressed in festive clothes peeped out of the vehicle’s window carrying flower bouquets in their hands, as the bus carried them inside the detention facility.
It wasn’t easy striking up a conversation with them, as the police stood close by watching them and those in the surroundings quite closely in their bid to not let them chat with anyone.
Human rights lawyer Moniza Kakar, who has been providing pro bono legal support for Afghan migrants and refugees, had a quick chat with the girls in Pashto. When asked what they were talking about, Kakar said: “They were talking about their families being picked up from a wedding and asked to board the bus after which they have been brought here.”
Future of girls at greater risk in Afghanistan
Kakar, who has been providing legal assistance to people outside the detention centre ever since the migrants were being brought there, said it was heartbreaking to hear children talk about being picked up and loaded in the buses to be eventually sent back to a place where they never felt safe — neither for their lives nor futures.
These young girls, once deported to Afghanistan, might never get to receive education, a basic human right, as the Taliban has banned girls from school after the sixth grade. According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), around “3.7 million children are out-of-school in Afghanistan — 60% of them are girls.”
Samar Abbas, a human rights activist in Karachi who has been advocating for the protection of human rights for the Afghans, said moving to Afghanistan is relatively easier for those who came to Pakistan after the Fall of Kabul, but those who have been living here for decades have no future across the country’s western border.
The future of young girls, meanwhile, is at greater risk in Afghanistan, as their education is not encouraged, while early marriages are a norm, he added.
“Girls are even more reluctant [to go to Afghanistan] because they know that they have no future there,” the activist said.
"These children, who work on the streets, do not even know the address of their homes. They only remember the route that leads to their home from their trash-picking spots in the city"
In a statement released on November 10, Amnesty International urged Pakistan to halt the mass detention and deportation of Afghan refugees.
“If the Pakistani government doesn’t halt the deportations immediately, it will be denying thousands of at-risk Afghans, especially women and girls, access to safety, education and livelihood,” Livia Saccardi, the human rights organisation’s deputy regional director for Campaigns for South Asia, said.
Highlighting the plight of Afghan children, particularly girls following their deportation, Dr Sanaa Alimia, the author of Refugee Cities: How Afghans Changed Pakistan, told The New Arab that the third generation of Afghans, in some cases first generation of children and girls, feel attached to the towns, cities and communities which they are a part and do feel incredible anxiety and sadness and worry about what their futures would look like.
“For many young girls, who have been educated in cities and towns of Pakistan, the lack of education — a basic human right— is of course a massive concern. But it is very important to understand, and we also have to contextualise it, that it is not a humanitarian tragedy by itself. This is not the only dimension through which we need to understand what is happening to young Afghan children and girls who are having to go back,” she said.
Dr Alimia termed the ongoing forced deportation as a “humanitarian tragedy” for which the Pakistani government is responsible.
“These young Afghan girls, who are being forcibly removed from the country, would continue to be able to have access to education within Pakistan had they been legally integrated into the country,” the author insisted.
Nearly 100 Afghan children currently in jail
On the other hand, both Samar and Kakar, who have been visiting the detention site daily ever since the migrants were brought to the transit facility, said the authorities have not provided any lists or data about the migrants being held inside the detention centre.
Kakar said she has no idea about the number of children detained in the detention centre, as neither lawyers nor journalists are given access to the facility.
“We have only been told that they have been brought here around 11 am. Just two to three buses just went past us,” she told The New Arab.
Kakar, however, said nearly 100 Afghan children are currently being held at the Central Jail in Karachi. “They were arrested before November 1 — the deadline for Afghans to leave Pakistan — and they have been booked as well, so we have access to them. their cases are currently being heard at the court.”
These children, the lawyer said, have been arrested under the Foreigners Act of 1946, which empowers authorities to arrest a foreigner “in the interest of the defence or the external affairs or the security of Pakistan, or any part thereof, detained or confined.”
Kakar informed that these children will eventually be deported after their one-month-long jail sentence, handed over by the court, is complete. “These children were picked from a madrassah near an Afghan settlement in the metropolis. They don’t remember the contact numbers of their families, which is why their parents are not aware of their whereabouts.”
After the end of the deadline, the lawyer said, all the children are now being brought to the detention centre and then deported to Afghanistan. Kakar also highlighted that with children being at the centre of this crisis, there is a fear of human trafficking cases surfacing as well.
“We have seen cases where the parents are outside, but their children are being held inside the detention centre. Several Afghan children, whose parents waited outside the facility, have been deported across the border,” Kakar said fearing chances of human trafficking.
The streets of Karachi have witnessed regular sightings of young Afghan boys, as young as five years old, picking trash day and night. Many of these children, Abbas said, were picked up by the police during raids both before and after the expulsion deadline.
“These children, who work on the streets, do not even know the address of their homes. They only remember the route that leads to their home from their trash-picking spots in the city.
The police had received children who neither knew their residential addresses nor their parents’ contact numbers,” he said, stressing that cases of such children were rife since the raids against “illegal migrants” began.
Cases of ‘mistaken identity’
On the night of November 5, both the lawyer and activist dealt with a case of Pakistan-born Afghan children being held by the police in Karachi. Samar recalled that the children were picked despite their family possessing valid refugee status such as the Por Card.
The boys — Shamsur Rahman, 16, and Faizur Rahman, 14 — were handed over to their father after hours of convincing local authorities and senior police officials, as well as verification of their identity. Samar said they shouldn’t have to go through this ordeal, as a simple verification process is enough to avoid detentions and send the children back to their homes.
When asked if a meeting with the children could be arranged, Samar said they are currently frightened and so are their parents, which is why they have been advised to remain at home as much as possible, as there was no guarantee the children could be arrested again.
Maham Tariq, a Karachi-based feminist activist, also describes the horror that Afghan children are going through, emphasising how they are scared.
“This is a huge thing, especially for a child. This is happening under horrendous circumstances. They were born here, grew up here, they went to school here, they had friends here and they were planning a life here for themselves. But for them to be suddenly uprooted, othered and asked to go back is jarring.”
The authorities, Tariq lamented, are picking up, interrogating and deporting minor children “unaccompanied”, terming it as either a lack of policy or a pressure tactic. “Where is it okay to put a child through the rigorous process of putting them in a holding cell? You are detaining a kid. A lot of them are going through the process without their parents around them or even being informed about it.”
She added that the only people these children have been in contact with are the LEAs and government officials, who are othering them.
Saeed Husain — a researcher on migration — has also been standing alongside Abbas and Kakar to assist people coming to the detention centre to find their family members. He said that the police, Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and government claim to release Afghans with PoR cards or ACC, which has not been the case in several situations.
But one case left everyone astounded outside the detention centre in Karachi. Muhammad Rauf, a Pakistani Pashtun citizen, arrived at the facility looking for his son Anas, who was picked up by the police and transported to the Chaman border.
Upon finding that his son, allegedly mistaken for an Afghan migrant due to a lack of identification documents, has already reached the border, the father has been inconsolable. His 19-year-old son Anas, last spoke with his father over a quick call from the Chaman border. The teenager’s only crime was not possessing a Computerized National Identity Card (CNIC).
“The last I spoke with him was at 11 am. He spoke about being queued in line to be deported, as authorities take his thumbprints before making him cross the border,” Rauf told The New Arab, showing the documents with his family’s details.
The man, who belongs to Pakistan’s once-terrorised district of South Waziristan, lives in the metropolitan with his family including his wife, only son and four daughters.
“I appeal to the government to bring my son back from Afghanistan. I want him back. I want those who deported him to bring him back,” he pleaded, turning towards his community who were gathered to protest the boy’s deportation.
‘Children outnumber adults’
Husain, who was running to and fro outside the detention centre, said he witnessed more women and children than men in the buses that arrived at the transit centre. “Just today, there was a man whose wife and children were taken inside. We asked him to join them, instead of waiting outside before they get deported to Afghanistan by themselves. The ratio of women and children is far greater than the ratio of men,” he said.
In the buses entering Pakistan's illegal detention centres, he noted the “sheer number of children” that drastically outnumber any of the adults.
The researcher lamented that there is no way of knowing how the migrants are being treated inside the detention centre and appealed to the government to let people go inside to independently verify the situation.
“What is the state trying to hide?” he said, asking the authorities to allow detainees access to legal help.
Hatred, xenophobia dangerous for children
Commenting on the ongoing mass eviction of Afghans, Farah Zia, the director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said it is important to see the legal situation and how Pakistan has responded to the refugee question since its inception, given it was not a signatory to the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Pakistan, she said doesn’t have a refugee policy and there’s no law for refugees or asylum seekers.
“The directives of the expulsion have come from the executive this time. It appears that we are more concerned about what is happening now, but this problem is decades-old and within this time Pakistan has had ad hoc discretionary policies. We have had a tripartite agreement with UNHCR and Afghanistan. But after August 2021, Pakistan stopped the UNHCR from registering the Afghans that were coming,” she said, speaking with The New Arab.
Zia, too, feared that this episode would forever be etched in the memories of these children, who may grow up with vengeance for Pakistan.
“We understand the vulnerability and psychology of children. What they will experience and think about this country because ultimately, we will still stay as neighbours. We have to have some kind of relationship with each other. How we think of them, the hatred, the xenophobia that this is all fed is very dangerous for the children.”
The HRCP chief called the ongoing deportation “coercive, arbitrary and violent”.
Husain also maintained that Pakistan's detentions of Afghan people are going to create terror, confusion, and hatred in the minds of children who have done nothing wrong except for “being born Afghan”.
Rabia Mushtaq is a journalist based in Karachi, Pakistan. She writes on a variety of beats including culture, gender and social justice, technology, and mental health.
Follow her on Twitter: @rabiamush