Amid Pakistan’s Crackdown, Afghan Refugees Lose Hope

Somaiyah Hafeez | 26 October 2023
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“We came with such difficulty… We would not leave on our own. If we could survive in Afghanistan then why would we flee?”

Ashok Ullah sold all his family’s belongings to be able to afford the journey to Torkham border. The 35-year-old from Jalalabad city in Afghanistan is one of the hundreds of thousands “unauthorized” Afghan refugees who have been asked to leave Pakistan or face mass arrests and deportations. 

“The police started harassing us recently and it was no longer possible to go to work without fear of being arrested,” Ullah told The Diplomat. “I do not want to go back but I am helpless. Afghanistan is my homeland, but the situation there is bad and it is the beginning of a harsh winter. We do not have a place to stay. 

“I am placing my trust in Allah and hoping that I can get a job and find a place to stay.”

Earlier this month, caretaker Interior Minister SarfarazBugti announced a 28-day deadline for all “illegal immigrants” to leave the country or face mass arrests and deportations. Under the new order, all undocumented immigrants must leave Pakistan by November 1.

Although Afghan refugees were not named directly, Bugti said the policy change was inspired by a wave of terrorist attacks in Pakistan. He made a point to note that of the 24 suicide bombing attacks conducted since January in the country, 14 were carried out by “Afghan nationals.” 

The narrative was challenged by ZabihullahMujahid, spokesperson for the Afghan Taliban. He took to X, formerly Twitter, to claim that “Afghan refugees are not involved in Pakistan’s security problems.” Mujahid added that the “behavior of Pakistan against Afghan refugees is unacceptable. The Pakistani side should reconsider its plan.”

The announcement received widespread criticism from human rights defenders and activists. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) posted on X that the decision “reflects not only an absence of compassion but also a myopic and narrow view of national security.” It urged the government to reverse the decision, which the HRCP called “unacceptable.” 

Relations between the Pakistan government and the Taliban regime have turned sour in the past two years. Islamabad has blamed the Taliban government for the resurgence of deadly Islamist militancy in Pakistan. In September, two separate suicide bombings on the same day in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces, both bordering Afghanistan, killed almost 60 people. 

The decision to deport over 1 million Afghans is being seen as a direct response to Kabul’s refusal to help Islamabad stop cross-border terrorism.

“This is certainly a reactionary response, which has been taken to pressurize the Taliban government to cooperate against Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP),” said Abdul Basit, a researcher at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. “Rather than addressing our own security loopholes. which are constantly resulting in cross-border terrorist attacks, a lot of which are emanating from within Pakistan, the government is going after Afghan refugees.”

Basit added that repatriation should be voluntary. He pointed out that if the government uses brute force to crack down on refugees, relations with the Afghan Taliban would be further dented. 

The situation in Afghanistan remains grim since the Taliban came into power. They have enforced an oppressive regime, particularly for women and girls who do not have the right to work or education. The economy has cratered, with both unemployment and hunger skyrocketing. This month Afghanistan also experienced its deadliest earthquake in decades, killing more than 3,000 people, further compounding matters for the starved nation. 

Qaiser Khan Afridi, spokesperson of the UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, said, “Afghanistan is going through a severe humanitarian crisis with several human rights challenges, particularly for women and girls.” In that context, the deportation plan “would have serious implications for all who have been forced to leave the country and may face serious protection risks upon return.”

Since the government’s announcement, approximately 19,500 undocumented Afghan refugees have left Pakistan via the Torkham border, Fazal Rabi, director of the Solution Strategy Unit of the Commissionerate for Afghan Refugees, told The Diplomat. 

Documentation Woes

45-year-old Abdul Majeed fled Afghanistan in 2021 after the Taliban came back to power. For the last two years, he has worked as a laborer in Mansehra, a city in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Majeed applied for documentation to legalize his stay in Pakistan. He got a token from the Society for Human Rights and Prisoners’ Aid (SHARP-Pakistan), UNHCR’s local partner, but was told by the police that the token has no value. 

“I do not want to go back, but instead of facing harassment at the hands of the police who demand bribes I have decided to go back. I choose to leave with dignity,” said Majeed, the father of 11. 

There are almost 4 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, according to UNHCR, 700,000 of whom escaped Afghanistan in 2021 after the Taliban regained power. Of the 4 million, about 1.73 million are without documentation. They are deemed to be in Pakistan “illegally,” and as a result are deprived of any legal protection. 

MonizaKakar, a lawyer based in Karachi who deals with cases of Afghan refugees pro bono, said she has long been trying to get the SHARP token a legal status. “For a long time, no cards have been issued. Only interviews are taken and the token is issued, but then the token is not accepted by anyone,” Kakar explained.

Pakistan is not a signatory of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, nor its 1967 protocol. The country also lacks any national legislation or framework for the protection of refugees and determination of status. 

Aziz Ullah, 33, applied for registration when he came to Pakistan five years ago. His initial SHARP token expired and he applied once again in January 2023 but didn’t receive a card. Ullah (not related to Ashok Ullah) said he was living in Gujranwala with his wife and 10 children. Despite repeated calls and visits to ask for an update about his registration, Ullah didn’t get a card issued. He said the token was never accepted by the police. 

“I just want to leave with respect,” he said. “My wife and my children have been sitting here since morning and we tried to cross the gate, but my children got stepped over. It hurts that … we can’t even leave with respect.”

Mariam (a pseudonym), 35, is an unregistered Afghan refugee living in an Afghan refugee camp in Peshawar with her family. “It is like living in an open prison. My husband doesn’t leave the camp, nor do my children, because we are scared the police will arrest us and deport us,” said Mariam. The family lives in a rented home and can’t afford to pay the rent of 6,000 Pakistani rupees (roughly $22) per month. 

She fled Afghanistan with her family in 2021 and applied for registration but hasn’t yet been issued a card. 

“We came with such difficulty. We had to sell everything we had in Afghanistan to make the journey to Pakistan. It hurts our heart that we are asked to leave. We took loans to come here. If we go back, we will have to start from scratch and won’t be able to pay back the loans,” said Mariam. 

“We would not leave on our own but if we are forced to leave then we can not do anything,” she added. Mariam recently enrolled her daughters at the school in the camp and is worried for their futures if her family is deported. 

“If we could survive in Afghanistan then why would we flee? Who doesn’t love their homeland? But we had no choice.”

Even documented Afghans living in Pakistan are being caught up in the crackdown. In fact, the majority of the cases Kakar deals with are of registered Afghan citizens who are detained by the police. “We have had more than a thousand cases of documented Afghan refugees who are laborers arrested by the police in [the last] month or so to extract bribes,” said Kakar. 

The crackdown against Afghan refugees has been going on since the early months of this year. After the government’s announcement, there has been an uptick in detentions. Reportedly, landlords in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, have received notices instructing them to evict “illegal Afghans” by the end of the month or face consequences.

Feroza, 50, migrated from Kuna Deh village in Nangarhar province in Afghanistan 35 years ago. Her four daughters and four sons were born in Pakistan. Despite owning a valid Afghan citizen card, two of her daughters who are married and live in Afghanistan, can’t come to visit their mother in Pakistan any more. 

“It would be easier to travel to America than to Afghanistan, which is our homeland. We cannot go back to attend funerals or weddings or any event. If we leave, we would not be allowed to come back even though we are documented refugees,” she said. “My daughters tried to come to Pakistan to meet us but they were stopped at the border.” 

Feroza emphasized that this is a new development; a few years back they could go to Afghanistan during celebrations or holidays, or to attend funerals. Not anymore.

Life in Pakistan is not easy either. Three of her sons are sick and her husband no longer works because of old age. The sole breadwinner of the house, her eldest son, earns 500 rupees (roughly $2) per day.

“We are unable to make ends meet. There is record-level inflation. Before we used to get ration in the camp but this stopped a year ago. I can’t even afford the fare to a hospital to get my eyes checked, and the dress I am wearing is borrowed too,” said Feroza.

“Life as a refugee is very harsh. Afghan refugees made perilous journeys to come here to seek refuge, selling whatever little possessions they had, and now they are being asked to leave. It is unjust.”

Somaiyah Hafeez is a feature story writer from Balochistan, Pakistan. She writes on mental health, science, women’s rights, politics, and culture.

This article was originally published on The Diplomat.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.