Behind the Afghan refugee crisis in PakistanExpelling the refugees will only exacerbate the Afghan-Pakistan relationship that is already in tatters.
Pakistan’s Caretaker Minister for Interior, Senator Sarfraz Bugti, announced the Illegal Foreigners Repatriation Plan on October 3, giving a month to the Afghan refugees/foreigners whose visa has expired to move back to Afghanistan by October 30. If they failed, they would be deported or imprisoned. Though the Taliban government had asked for an extension till November 1 for undocumented Afghans to leave Pakistan, no such extension was granted.
The deportation order has brought to the fore the recurring debate in the South Asian region regarding illegal/undocumented migrants and refugees, as states have not ratified the International Convention of Refugees. Any such movement of refugees from a conflict zone or perceived threat to families from regimes in their native countries depends on the host country to get refugee status. Can the refugees be called ‘illegal migrants’ or ‘undocumented migrants’, as we often call them in the subcontinent?
After the Partition of India in 1947, India and Pakistan states separated citizens from non-citizens—India, through the 1955 Citizenship Act; Pakistan, through the 1951 Citizenship Act. The two countries often use the 1946 Foreigners Act to prosecute illegal immigrants. Pakistan has invoked the 1946 Act to deport the Afghans who do not leave the country by the deadline.
Afghan refugees in Pakistan
After the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, many Afghans took refuge in Pakistan, a country that has historically provided refuge to the Afghans. The then President Zia ul Haq welcomed them in the spirit of Islamic brotherhood. Of course, it trained these refugees, funded and armed them to fight anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan with the United States funding till the Soviet withdrawal in 1988. Taliban is one such product that originated from the Afghan refugee camps who were studying in madrassas in the erstwhile North West Frontier Province (NWFP), now known as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). They were used to install a Pakistani-friendly regime, replacing the Burhanuddin Rabbani regime and ending the fighting between the Mujahidin groups vying to take control of Kabul. Pakistan recognised and almost conducted the Taliban’s foreign policy when the group was in power from 1996 to 2001. The Taliban were removed as part of the US war on terror after they refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 Twin Tower attacks and returned to power in August 2021.
Pakistan was uneasy with the new regime in Afghanistan. Though it became part of the war on terror reluctantly, it sheltered the Taliban leadership, helped them organise and allowed the Haqqani network—a Taliban affiliate—to operate against the foreign troops. In doing so, its sole intention was to remove the West-sponsored regimes in Afghanistan and bring the Taliban back to power. It provided refuge to the families of Quetta Shura and sympathisers of the regime. In fact, the Afghan refugees served Pakistan’s strategic interests and its geopolitical goal in Afghanistan.
Though there were local dissatisfactions about the presence of Afghan refugees since the 1980s—they dominated the trucking business and took up local jobs, not to mention the rise in crime rates in the then NWFP—the government stuck to its decision. However, these ‘undocumented migrants’ were exploited in the labour market.
Expelling the refugees
In the Pakistani drive to deport the Afghans, law enforcement agencies are known to have arrested, separated families and extracted bribes for allowing them time to leave. Though the refugees have protested, there is hardly any support from the Pakistan political parties that are busy preparing for the next general election. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has urged the caretaker regime to halt this repatriation, which it terms as an ‘ill-considered move’. Many of the refugees who left Pakistan are living in the open as the winter approaches, and Afghanistan stares at another humanitarian crisis. Families with daughters are worried about the lack of opportunities for women’s education under the harsher code of the Taliban.
Yet why is Pakistan reluctant to extend hospitality to over 600,000 Afghan refugees who arrived after the Taliban took over Kabul? The horror story of some Afghans clinging to the wheels of US evacuation aircraft, falling to their deaths, evokes memories of Afghans’ desperation to leave their country. Though many of the refugees have relevant documents, the Pakistani government estimates that 1.7 million are undocumented. Many have applied for visa extensions and do not know how to react to this deportation notice. Some of them are also ethnic minorities from Afghanistan who dread going back, fearing reprisal and threat to life under the Taliban.
The Taliban regime has said they have set up committees to help the Afghans and provide them with food and blankets amidst the tense relationship between the two countries over attacks orchestrated by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in Pakistan whom Islamabad accuses are sheltered by Taliban regime. In April 2022, Pakistan purportedly conducted an airstrike on TTP bases in Kunar and Khost in Afghanistan after the TTP launched its spring offensive ‘Al Badr’ had killed at least 45 civilians.
Pakistan’s decision to expel undocumented refugees arises from the country’s internal security problems. Of the 24 terrorist attacks in Pakistan this year, 14 were carried out by Afghan nationals. As Interior Minister Bugti said, “We are attacked from within Afghanistan, and Afghan nationals are involved in attacks on us”. Rights groups and Afghan nationals argue that the entire community cannot be blamed for the actions of a few. While the Taliban government has accused Pakistan of ‘cruel’ and ‘unacceptable’ treatment of Afghans, it has also warned Islamabad of ‘consequences’.
Notably, the tension between the Taliban and Pakistani governments, especially on the issue of terrorism, is at the root of this expulsion. At one point, the then Prime Minister Imran Khan had welcomed the Taliban takeover, calling it the breaking of the ‘shackles of slavery’.The Pakistani security establishment calculated that Taliban 2.0 would give them strategic depth, and India would be forced to leave Afghanistan, given their reservation against the Taliban. Yet, in a turn of events, the Taliban asked India to reopen its mission and resume development work in Afghanistan. The expulsion of Afghan refugees as collective punishment will only add to the Afghan-Pakistan tension and may not be a panacea for the terrorist attacks in Pakistan.