Pakistan’s move to expel “illegal” immigrants since November 1 had already drawn widespread criticism when the government went a step further and slapped an exorbitant exit fee on Afghan refugees in the country awaiting resettlement elsewhere.
Refugees who fled to Pakistan following the Taliban’s capture of Kabul in August 2021 have now been told to pay an “exit permit fee” of $830 per person when they receive asylum in other countries.
But three weeks on, the exit fee decision as well as the contradictory statements of Pakistani ministers have started making clear that domestic political considerations as well as broader economic and geopolitical considerations of this ill-thought policy.
The move to oust Afghan refugees is an attempt to “consolidate and centralise resources and settle the Durand line”, as the Pakistani establishment has long wanted to do, said political scientist and author Ayesha Siddiqa. The Durand line is the porous border dividing Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The move is also ostensibly aimed at combatting smuggling across the Durand line. Pakistan Army General Asim Munir warned that military officers involved in cross-border smuggling will be court-martialed and imprisoned.
It has also become an extortion exercise. “Many will pay to complete the documentation,” Siddiqa told Sapan News.
“Evicting Afghans is as difficult as the Palestinian issue,” said Siddiqa. There are “no dividends and the implementation is even more difficult”. Perhaps this is what led a Fox News anchor in the United States to indignantly claim that Pakistan is ejecting “1.7 million Palestinians”.
But the government remains mum on how it will effectively manage the exit of such a large number of refugees, as Siddiqa wondered. Neither are there any answers to whether the Taliban government will accept those who have lived in Pakistan for generations.
Afghan refugees in Pakistan
Since the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan has hosted an estimated four million Afghan refugees. But in October, the Pakistan government set a deadline of November 1 for “illegal” immigrants to leave the country, or else face deportation.
The crackdown was initially aimed at the 1.73 million refugees without legal documentation. But despite earlier official assurances that legal residents will not be deported, even those with proper documentation are facing forced repatriation.
Of the four million Afghan refugees, the Pakistan government estimates that 1.4 million have Proof of Registration cards, while 850,000 have Afghan Citizenship Cards.
Pakistan, like other countries in the region, is not a party to the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.
But rights activists underline the moral obligation to treat refugees humanely, noting that Pakistan has signed international treaties with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and ratified the UN Convention against Torture as well as the Child Rights Convention.
Scapegoating an entire community only speaks to Pakistan’s lack of legislation or political will on how to deal with refugees, say analysts.
They also view it as playing politics with the lives of Afghan refugees who have lived in Pakistan for generations, many of whom have known only this country as a home, as former senator Afrasiab Khattak noted.
Pakistan support for the Taliban
While expelling Afghan refugees, the Pakistan government has at the same time publicly supported the Taliban regime, most recently in August when Defence Minister Khawaja Asif of the Shehbaz Sharif-led government called the Taliban “freedom fighters”, lauding their victory over the American-led North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
When the Taliban seized control of Kabul in August 2021, Pakistani prime Minister Imran Khan had hailed it as Afghanistan’s liberation from the “shackles of slavery”.
His Inter-Services Intelligence Chief Faiz Hameed was seen sipping tea in the foyer of Kabul’s Serena Hotel while downplaying worries saying “everything will be ok”.
Following the Taliban’s takeover in 2021, over 600,000 had Afghans fled to Pakistan hoping to transition to other countries that promised asylum. Two years on, many are still in Islamabad, awaiting visa confirmations or refugee status.
They include students, doctors, musicians, activists, journalists, teachers, and ex-government servants. Rights activists also say the crackdown on Afghan refugees will, in the long run, harm Pakistan and its relationship with an unstable Afghanistan.
The repatriation process should respect the human rights of the deportees and with proper documentation, observes veteran urban planner Arif Hasan, writing for Dawn. Pakistan, he predicts, “will require the support of the Afghan nation in the not-too-distant future to stabilise itself”.
Costs to Pakistan
Since the announcement, more than 330,000 people have returned to Afghanistan, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Those still in Pakistan face being kept in “holding centres”, maintained at a huge cost to the exchequer. The provincial Sindh government alone has allocated 4.5 billion rupees, around $16.16 million, to such centres. This at a time when Pakistan is grappling with a severe economic crisis that has seen the poverty rate jumping from 34% to 39% in a year.
Lawyers, journalists, and even the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees are denied access to these “holding centres”, where refugees are reportedly herded into buses and cargo containers. They are also barred from carrying cash exceeding 50,000 rupees, or around $175, per family or taking their cattle and other belongings.
The government must “balance security concerns with humanitarian concerns”, ensuring that security does not trump everything else, said Saba Gul Khattak, former member of the Planning Commission of Pakistan.
Saba Gul Khattak also criticised the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for cutting off 46% of its funding allocated to Pakistan, leaving just $96.7 million for 3.7 million Afghans in the country.
She underlined the discrepancy in the allocation of the refugee agency’s worldwide budget, with Asia receiving a disproportionately small portion of 9%, and the restricted offering of refugee visas capped at approximately 3,500 annually for resettlement, leaving thousands of vulnerable asylum seekers in limbo.
A refugee agency needs to “have a better communication policy with the public, explaining what’s happening and its constraints,” she said.
Xenophobia, domestic political considerations
The state machinery’s treatment of Afghan refugees has led to an exponential rise in casual racism and xenophobia against an already disenfranchised and marginalised community.
Afghan-owned shops and settlements in the capital have been targeted, as had happened before in 2016 and 2017 in several cities. Analysts say that the current drive enables the ethnic and racial stereotyping of Pashtun families of Afghan descent. Even those with legal status and their children in Karachi are being unlawfully detained and deported.
This is in contravention of the Citizens Act, 1951, as well as remarks by the Islamabad High Court in October and international laws. Hapless parents run pillar to post seeking the return of their deported children. There are occasional victories, like the three teenagers who were rescued before they could be expelled – all of them were born in Pakistan and had refugee documents.
Pakistan’s caretaker Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti has claimed that Afghans were involved in half the “terrorist” attacks in Pakistan over the past year. He did not cite any evidence to back this claim. But if some refugees are involved in “terrorist” activities, “then by all means prosecute and fine them as per the law”, says Saba Gul Khattak. “Smearing an entire community for the actions of a few ‘unknown’ bad actors is unfair and amounts to collective punishment.”
These fissures appear “even within feminist circles and civil society”, notes Saba Gul Khattak. When the Aurat March in Lahore and the Joint Action Committee for Refugees in Karachi held a protest in October at local press clubs, they were met with criticism.
The administration is also cracking down on discourse on the matter. In October, police in Islamabad raided The Black Hole, a community centre, to stop a panel discussion on the forced deportation of refugees.
For now, the judiciary has refused to intervene. On November 12, the Supreme Court registrar dismissed a petition that sought to halt the deportation for violating fundamental rights. This echoed the Sindh High Court’s refusal during the preliminary hearing of a similar plea, where the court drew parallels with Saudi Arabia’s stringent refugee laws.
Returning to a collapsing country
Artist and educator Salima Hashmi said that the Taliban’s ban on the education of women makes it imperative for Pakistan to support Afghan women studying here, she added.
Afghan women and children bear the brunt of the Taliban as well as governments where they seek refuge. Now, they are being pushed back into a hungry, impoverished country that is “worse than the apartheid”, as Afghan rights activist Mehbouba Seraj said, at a webinar on gender apartheid in Afghanistan, organised by the Southasia Peace Action Network.
There is also concern about the welfare of those being sent back, given the economic sanctions on the Afghanistan, earthquakes, impending winter and the destruction left after nearly decades of war.
“Pakistan itself was created out of the displacement and migration of vast swathes of people,” Hashmi told Sapan News. “It can’t ignore the wars carried out from its territory and act like the needs and rights of people seeking safety don’t matter.”
Refugees should not be viewed solely as a problem, said rights advocate Sima Samar of Afghanistan. Samar herself was a refugee in Pakistan for nearly 17 years – from 1994 to 2001.
Rather than scapegoating them, they represent an opportunity for the host country’s growth and progress, she said, adding that there is crime wherever humans are present, regardless of a country’s level of development or wealth.
The state must develop a proper mechanism to protect the rights of those who seek asylum. In the long run, this is what will ensure internal and regional stability, rather than attempts to deport a community, many of whom have lived in Pakistan for over four decades.
“At the core, we’re all human beings,” said Samar. “The borderline that separates us was drawn by someone [in an attempt] to divide us.”
Abdullah Zahid is an aspiring journalist studying mass communication at the University of Karachi. His X handle is @AbdullahZahid.
This is a Sapan News syndicated feature.