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Afghans in Pakistan return to Taliban as persona non grata

Persona non grata overnight: Afghan refugees in Pakistan return to Taliban in point of no return
7 min read
30 November, 2023
Pakistan's decision to forcibly remove or deport nearly two million Afghan refugees has turned the state from a security net and sanctuary into a security trap. Now hundreds of thousands of Afghans fear for their future as they return to the Taliban.

Every morning, Niazi, an Afghan journalist and founder of The Afghan Times, wakes in her home in Pakistan, counting down the days until her Pakistani visa expires. 

“It expires on 21 December then I’ll face deportation, losing my legal right to stay in the country,” Niazi* tells The New Arab

Having quickly fled Afghanistan in February 2022, Niazi found solace within the borders of Pakistan but is now fearful of her impending deportation back to Afghanistan. 

“I was seeking refuge from Taliban threats due to my reporting on their atrocities,” she says. 

Between 600,000 and 800,000 other Afghans fled Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover in August 2021, many of them human rights defenders, former government officials, former military leaders, judges, lawyers, activists and journalists. 

They were hopeful to either stay indefinitely in Pakistan or be relocated to a third country like the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada or the United States.  

But as their temporary Pakistani visas expire with no relocation plans in place, hundreds of thousands of Afghans are fearful of deportation back to Afghanistan after the announcement from the Pakistani government to deport 1.7 million undocumented Afghans from 1 November. 

The crackdown on unregistered foreigners is part of Pakistan’s new anti-immigration policy. Pakistan’s acting interior minister said “There will be no compromise against illegal refugees” because Pakistan is “putting its house in order.” 

“Pakistan is the only country hosting four million refugees for the last 40 years and still hosting them,” he told Foreign Policy. “Whoever wants to stay in our country must stay legally. We are not a cruel state. Pakistanis are more important.”

According to Human Rights Watch, Pakistani authorities have forced more than 375,000 Afghan refugees to Afghanistan after the shock decision last month [Getty Images]

While she awaits her visa’s expiry date, Niazi spends her days writing for The Afghan Times and walking around parks in Islamabad, always wearing a mask to avoid recognition and threats. 

Never far in her thoughts is the fact she is going to have to return to Afghanistan, either voluntarily or by force.

“I fear being arrested or killed by the Taliban if deported to Afghanistan,” she says. “The prospect is deeply distressing.”

She described other Afghans feeling the same constant sense of fear. 

“I hope foreign countries will open their doors to provide shelter for Afghans in need,” she said. 

Many Afghans who arrived in Pakistan on a six-month visa after the Taliban takeover were encouraged to apply for resettlement programmes in the US, UK, Canada and Germany, but have been left in limbo with expired Pakistani visas (that can only be extended from Afghanistan) and lengthy, unsettled resettlement processes to third countries.

Others are registered with UNHCR, but their cases are pending. Some had applied for extensions to stay in Pakistan for longer but haven’t received an answer from the Pakistani army minister of interior. 

“Authorities say these people are undocumented, or that they don’t have legal documents, but it is because there is no process for them to get the documents,” Fereshta Abbasi, Researcher in the Asia division at Human Rights Watch, tells The New Arab.

Before 1 November, there were reports from Refugees International of increased harassment by police, landlords evicting Afghan tenants, the demolition of houses of Afghan refugees, and Pakistani authorities rounding up Afghans for arrest. Undocumented refugees were told to leave Pakistan or face deportation. 

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When deportations began on 1 November, warnings were communicated through leaflets, loudspeakers at local mosques, and statements that anyone providing accommodation to Afghan refugees without documentation would be fined or arrested. Harassment has also been reported, with Afghans telling Amnesty International they were unlawfully detained, searched by plain-clothed people reporting to be police, and forced to give over money to police. 

At least 49 detention centres have been set up across Pakistan where “illegal” refugees are taken before being deported. In at least seven detention centres, no legal rights, such as the right to a lawyer or communication with family, are extended to detainees. 

Fereshta, who has been in contact with numerous Afghans in Pakistan, says people are avoiding going out of the house, scared they might encounter police. 

“In several cases, police officers go to the houses, knock on the door, and ask for documents,” Fereshta says. 

She described one man who had police show up at his door shouting for his passport, visa, and any documents. 

“He tried to explain that he had a pending application to extend his visa — that he hasn’t heard anything from the Minister of the Interior,” says Fereshta. “But if you don’t have a passport and visa, the police don’t care about anything else you say.”

According to those Fereshta has spoken to, once detained, Afghans are being told they can pay between 10,000 and 14,000 Pakistani rupees to be released. 

Hassan*, his wife and two young children fled Afghanistan to head to Iran in September 2021 as his job working with national security defence endangered his life under Taliban rule. 

When his visa to stay in Iran expired in April 2022, he took his family to Pakistan. 

But now that his Pakistani visa has expired, he is petrified of deportation back to Afghanistan. 

“We are so afraid,” the 40-year-old tells The New Arab. “We stay home unless something is urgent. We don’t go outside in case we are arrested and deported.”

Although he has been referred for resettlement to the United States Refugee Admissions Programme, his application hasn’t yet been processed. He has previously tried to extend his Pakistani visa but has been denied. He can only think his fate will be a return to Afghanistan, where his life is at risk.

“Our future is dark,” he says. “We are just waking every morning wondering what will happen.”

It isn’t only those who entered Pakistan over the last two years that are being detained. Back in the late 1970s and 1980s, tens of thousands of Afghans fled to Pakistan after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Again, more fled after the US invaded after the 9/11 attacks. 

These Afghans too, who have made Pakistan their home, are being sent back to Afghanistan. 

Juma Dar worked as a stone mason in the Punjab Province of Pakistan after he fled Afghanistan 50 years ago during the Soviet invasion. In October, he first heard the announcement that he would have to return to Afghanistan as his visa had expired.  

“They were announcing via loudspeaker that all undocumented Afghans should leave Pakistan by the end of October,” the 77-year-old recalls. “The whole family was in shock and worried about the process of being deported and going back to Afghanistan in this critical situation and during the cold weather.”

He quickly attempted to prepare his three sons and grandchildren for the journey. 

“We left in a rush, just packing urgent things,” he remembers. “Unfortunately, they were not allowing more than 50,000 Rupees to be taken back to Afghanistan. And no major possessions were allowed to be taken back to Afghanistan by rickshaw, motorbike or livestock.”

He’s now waiting for registration and documentation in a reception camp in Torkham, Pakistan before travelling to the Balkh Province in Afghanistan. 

While he waits, he and his large family survive only on donations to survive. 

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Islamic Relief has reported that thousands of people are arriving each day in Afghanistan without shelter, food, or water, facing an uncertain future after being told to leave Pakistan. Some left Afghanistan in the last two years, and others were born or have lived in Pakistan for decades. 

“Those who have stayed in Pakistan for decades are feeling unhappy and unclear about their futures,” Eng Tahir, an Islamic Relief worker based on the Torkham border, tells The New Arab. “These returnees were in Pakistan for years, with good jobs and children in schools. When they return to Afghanistan, they will likely face many challenges because they are unfamiliar with the situation in Afghanistan.”

Worried about the huge strain the returning refugees will have on Afghanistan, a country suffering from extremely high levels of hunger, poverty, unemployment, and malnutrition, Islamic Relief is calling on international donors to step up and support vulnerable people in Afghanistan. 

In Pakistan, Fereshta wants to see immediate action from both Pakistan and third countries with open asylum application cases. 

“The Pakistani government needs to drop the 1 November deadline for deporting Afghan refugees, and work together with UNHCR to register those Afghans at risk,” says Fereshta.

“Countries with open asylum applications from Afghan refugees in Pakistan need to work quicker to make sure they are resettling Afghans.”

* Name changed for protection

Lauren Crosby Medlicott is a freelance features writer specialising in social justice issues

Follow her on Twitter: @LaurenMedlicott