In October 2023, the Pakistani government announced that it would arrest and deport hundreds of thousands of unregistered foreign nationals and migrants lacking proper documentation. The deadline was set as November 1, 2023. Reportedly, this was to affect some 1.7 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan but also members of other persecuted communities including China’s Uyghurs and Myanmar’s Rohingya. While the majority of the over 4 million Afghans living in Pakistan has been in the country since the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, between 600,000 and 800,000 Afghans are believed to have arrived in Pakistan after the Taliban took over power in 2021.
Thousands of Afghans affected by the decision have been living in Pakistan for decades. They consider Pakistan to be their home. Forcing them to leave Pakistan means that they are at imminent risk of being rendered homeless and losing their livelihoods. Furthermore, there are groups of people who are at a particular risk if pushed back to the Taliban-run Afghanistan.
Among others, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a U.S. federal government commission created by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, expressed concern about the situation of religious minorities, including Christians, Shia Muslims, Ahmadiyya Muslims, and Sikhs, who may be forced back to Afghanistan where they would face a serious threat. Similar concerns have been raised by members of the Hazara Shia group, an ethno-religious numeric minority community which has been subjected to targeted attacks by the Taliban and IS-K. Among others, in early November 2023, IS-K claimed responsibility for a bus attack targeting the community in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul, resulting in seven people being killed and over 20 wounded.
Furthermore, as Amnesty International indicated, the deportation of Afghans to Pakistan “would particularly put women and girls in grave danger as they would be exposed to persecution and other serious human rights violations simply because of their sex and their gender. For an overwhelming majority of them living and studying in Pakistan may be their only chance of gaining a formal education. A significant number of Afghan refugees including journalists, human rights defenders, women protestors, artists, and former government officials and security personnel would also be at imminent risk of persecution and repression by the Taliban, if forced to return to Afghanistan.”
Reports suggest that there are approximately 200 Afghan journalists at risk in Pakistan, and awaiting resettlement to other countries. Many of them are without documents after their travel papers have expired.
Thousands of Afghans have already left Pakistan, out of fear of being arrested and deported. Pakistani authorities are also said to have been following their warning. As indicated by the USCIRF, “Authorities have reportedly conducted raids and established deportation centers to hold individuals who do not voluntarily return to their country of origin.” In early November 2023, the Guardian reported that Pakistan had begun arresting and deporting Afghan refugees who missed the deadline for them to leave. Amnesty International indicated that 49 detention centers (also referred to as “holding” or “transit” centers) have been set up across Pakistan. As Amnesty International noted, “These deportation centers have not been constructed under a specified law and run parallel to the legal system. (…) in at least seven detention centers, no legal rights are extended to detainees such as the right to a lawyer or communication with family members. Such centers are in violation of the right to liberty and a fair trial. Also, no information is made public, making it hard for families to trace their loved ones.”
Commenting on the developments, Professor Javaid Rehman, professor of international human rights law at Brunel University, London (U.K.), and High Court Advocate, Pakistan, said: “I am concerned at the grave violations of international human rights law and Pakistan’s constitutional laws in the current ongoing mass deportation drive of Afghans from Pakistan. I am receiving troubling reports of violations of fundamental rights, including arbitrary detentions and forced repatriations of Afghans across the border: this unfortunately will result in a considerable human tragedy and further destabilization. I do not see that the current interim government has the constitutional authority to conduct such actions and I would therefore strongly urge the [international community] to take note of this deep human and humanitarian crisis.”
More than two years after the fall of Kabul, little attention is paid to the Afghan refugees in limbo in neighboring countries and awaiting assistance and resettlement. Recent years have also seen further conflicts and situations producing more and more refugees, and putting more pressure on the already collapsing system.