Adorned in blues, yellows, reds, pinks, and greens, the colourful truck idles in the dirt after crossing through Torkham into Afghanistan. As the sun sets, a young man perched on the roof stares into the distance while the driver, Bader Monir, tries to figure out how to get the man and his family safely back to their native district of Khiwa, 100 kilometres to the north.
Monir, 42, has been driving between Pakistan and Afghanistan for 22 years, but the last few weeks have presented him and many other drivers with a new challenge: They’re being asked to transport entire Afghan families, along with all their possessions, back to Afghanistan.
The trend began almost immediately after a 3 October announcement by Islamabad’s caretaker government saying it wanted “all illegal foreigners” out of the country by 1 November. The order was seen as a direct threat to more than one million undocumented Afghans, hundreds of thousands of whom have been in Pakistan for decades.
Pakistan has made similar threats before, but Monir said the latest ultimatum is being taken very seriously. Islamabad has long complained – without evidence – that the large numbers of Afghans it hosts places a strain on the country’s struggling economy.
Last December, provincial authorities in Sindh arrested 1,200 Afghans accused of not having proper documents. Dozens more have been detained every week since, with Islamabad stepping up detentions after claiming Afghans were involved in recent terrorist attacks in Pakistan.
Samiullah, the young man on top of Monir’s truck, told The New Humanitarian that the recent wave of arrests has caught the attention of all Afghans in Pakistan.
Until mid-September, the 18-year-old had been selling snacks on the streets of Karachi. But with the rise in round-ups and detentions, which have been particularly prevalent in the southern port city, he no longer felt safe being out in public. “People just started disappearing,” Samiullah said. “One day they’d be gone.”
Afghans have been crossing into Pakistan and Iran in their thousands for decades, ever since the Soviet occupation of the 1980s. The 2001 US-led occupation, and the subsequent 20-year war between the former Western-backed government and the Taliban, led to massive waves of refugees. Since the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021 – which was accompanied by fears of retribution and repression – a further 600,000 Afghans have crossed into Pakistan.
Afghans told The New Humanitarian they’ve faced great financial and bureaucratic difficulties trying to obtain documentation from Pakistan or the UN that allows them to stay in the country.
The UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) lacks the capacity to register and process the claims of hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers in Pakistan, so only a limited number of Afghans have been able to seek protection with UNHCR, leaving the rest without secure legal status.
Afghans who wish to remain in the country must have a Proof of Registration (PoR) card, issued by the Pakistani government in collaboration with UNHCR. However, Islamabad hasn’t issued any new PoRs since 2007. The Pakistani government did start issuing its own Afghan Citizen Card (ACC) in 2017, but stopped those in 2018.
Unlike the ACCs, the PoRs grant asylum seekers some basic services, enabling them, for example, to open a bank account, rent a home, and obtain a SIM card.
Mirwais Zazai, an Afghan refugee in Islamabad, told The New Humanitarian that visa extensions cost “a huge amount of money”, especially since the government’s 3 October order. Afghans in both countries said they have had to spend anywhere between $300 and $2,000 to obtain or renew a Pakistani visa.
Between 1 January and 20 October this year, 2,247 asylum seekers with PoRs and 968 undocumented refugees with ACCs were arrested. The UN says these are the highest figures since 2018.
As round-ups intensified, word spread and Afghans started to warn one another. “You would hear ‘they were just in this neighbourhood’, or ‘they’re coming to this neighbourhood next’,” Samiullah recalled. “We decided it’s better to just leave than to be dishonoured and arrested.”
According to the UN’s migration agency, IOM, 83,268 refugees have returned since January, but the lion’s share have done so since September, when the caretaker government approved the expulsion plan: 51,751 between 15 September and 21 October.
The Afghan consulate in Karachi estimates the number of returnees to be much higher, saying 120,000 Afghans have left Pakistan so far in October alone.
Risk of abuse, imprisonment on return
Although the Islamic Emirate, as the Taliban government prefers to be called, has announced a general amnesty, rights groups and media organisations have repeatedly documented the abuse and detention of protesters, women’s rights advocates, media workers, members of the former Western-backed government’s security forces, and education activists in the country.
“They will be in hiding or imprisoned if deported to Afghanistan,” Madina Mahboobi, an Afghan human rights defender who recently travelled to Pakistan to speak to Afghans at risk of deportation, said of groups that include thousands awaiting visas to countries in North America and Europe. “They were hoping to resettle. Instead, they’ll be deported.”
Mahboobi is particularly fearful of what this order could mean for Afghan women, who have seen their rights to employment, education, travel, and leisure severely restricted by the Islamic Emirate. “Afghanistan is already facing multiple crises,” she said. “Deporting a million Afghans will just bring another humanitarian crisis.”
Despite all this, days after the October announcement, the dirt roads on the Afghan side of the Torkham crossing were already buzzing with hundreds of returning families, many with their luggage at their side trying to figure out where to go next.
“Rather than talking about giving these refugees some help… Pakistan is busy throwing [Afghan] men, women, and children in prison.”
The majority of families have spent most of their lives in Pakistan and are often unsure what to do once they reach Afghan soil.
IOM has set up some facilities for returnees near the Torkham crossing – a camp site and a special centre for children – but with thousands arriving each day, the needs for shelter and other basics far outweigh the services available.
The Taliban government has designated a special area near the crossing where taxis gather to take families to their next destination. Taxi driver Jawid Shinwari, 35, said most families head for the neighbouring provinces of Laghman and Kunar, but some are looking to go as far as Kandahar, more than 14 hours south by car.
Even the trip to Kunar, three hours away, costs 4,000 afghanis ($53) by taxi, leaving many families stranded for days while they work out how to pay their onward passage, according to Shinwari. This is made harder by the fact the Pakistani authorities only allow undocumented Afghans to leave with a maximum of 50,000 rupees ($180).
“The [Afghan] government has been helpful,” Shinwari said. “They’ve installed generators nearby and bathrooms, but more people just keep coming all the time. They’re doing a good job, but imagine how many people could be coming.”
“Rather than talking about giving these refugees some help… Pakistan is busy throwing [Afghan] men, women, and children in prison,” Khalid Zadran, a spokesperson for the Kabul Police Command, said in a TV appearance last week.
In addition to the facilities at Torkham, The Taliban government has created a camp to house newly-arriving Afghans in the nearby Lalpoor district of Nangarhar province, as well as a special committee to look at how to assist the returnees more broadly.
But the fast-approaching deadline – and global attention on the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Gaza – mean the Islamic Emirate will likely face great difficulty in responding if hundreds of thousands of people start pouring over in the coming weeks.
In the two years since the Taliban returned to power, the Islamic Emirate has faced an uphill battle trying to revive the nation’s economy while dealing with sanctions of their top leadership, billions in asset seizures, banking restrictions, and the refusal to recognise them as Afghanistan’s official government.
Kabul is also already struggling to provide relief to thousands displaced by a series of devastating earthquakes earlier this month in the western province of Herat, at a time when international assistance has been cut due to squeezed aid budgets worldwide.
Pakistan’s mixed messages
The Pakistani government, on the other hand, has doubled down on its threat as the clock ticks towards 1 November.
At a press conference in Islamabad on 26 October, caretaker Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti said his government has compiled a list of all undocumented people and will begin removals for anyone who overstays. “We won’t compromise on any illegal citizens living in Pakistan after November 1,” Bugti said, announcing the opening of several “holding centres” for any undocumented people who stay beyond the deadline.
“It’s taking a toll on my health. All I can think about is whether we’ll be deported. It’s on my mind night and day.”
Mahboobi said the order is a direct contradiction of what Pakistan’s caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar stated during his recent address to the UN General Assembly.
Pakistan, Kakar said, “shares the concerns of the international community with respect to Afghanistan, particularly the rights of women and girls… We advocate continued humanitarian assistance to a destitute Afghan population in which Afghan girls and women are the most vulnerable.”
Zohra Wahedi Akhtari, a former media worker whose family has been living in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi since January 2022, fears her three daughters, aged eight to 18, will have no future in a country where girls are still not allowed to study above the sixth grade, and where most of the government – the nation’s largest employer – refuses to hire women.
Akhtari has been trying to renew her family’s Pakistani visas since June, but to no avail. She said her experience is not rare, and that most Afghans she knows have to wait three or four months for word on their visa renewals, only for them to end in rejection.
“It’s taking a toll on my health,” Akhtari said. “All I can think about is whether we’ll be deported. It’s on my mind night and day.”
Several Afghans in Pakistan told The New Humanitarian the UN isn’t much help either. Most said they have to wait at least a year for an initial interview with UNHCR, despite the fact the UN agency issued successive non-return advisories in 2021, 2022, and 2023, which call for a ban on forced returns due to the risk of human rights violations.
Afghan and Pakistani rights activists bemoan the fact that Pakistan has hosted millions of Afghan refugees for decades without being a signatory to the UN refugee convention, and ask why the international community has allowed the country to get away without establishing a workable visa regime or a proper refugee law.
Muhammad Mudassar Javed, CEO of the Islamabad-based Society for Human Rights and Prisoners' Aid (SHARP-Pakistan), said that despite the government’s repeated references to “illegal” people, it has failed to create proper systems for regularising the status of Afghan refugees, even though they first arrived en masse decades ago.
Mahboobi, the rights defender, said Islamabad’s own policies have played a role in creating the ballooning number of undocumented people in the country. “The international community has to pressurise Pakistan to expedite its refugee registration process,” she said.
Javed, like many others, now fears Islamabad is looking to make up for four decades of ineffectiveness with one quick and damaging move. “Deporting that many refugees requires a lot of time,” he said. “It would take years, not a month.”
Edited by Andrew Gully.