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Deporting a million Afghans won’t solve Pakistan’s problems

Last week’s announcement comes on the heels of dangerous rhetoric and sentiment that has been brewing for some time.

Pictured are two Afghan refugees carrying packaged, one carries a blue luggage over his shoulder and another a white sack. They are outside of a building to leave the Pakistani port city of Karachi and return to Afghanistan following the Pakistani government's decision to deport those illegally staying in the country, in Karachi, Pakistan on October 06, 2023. Sabir Mazhar/Anadolu Agency
Afghan nationals pick up their belongings as they leave the Pakistani port city of Karachi to return to Afghanistan following the Pakistani government's decision threat to deport all immigrants lacking valid documentation, on 6 October 2023.

When Pakistan’s caretaker government announced it will deport all “illegal” immigrants by the end of the month, everyone knew exactly what it meant: Afghan refugees are once again to be the targets of Islamabad’s threats.

The 3 October announcement by Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti attracted instant backing on social media. As someone who grew up in Pakistan, where Afghan refugees have always been viewed with suspicion, this fevered rush of online support came as little surprise: The false narrative that all Afghans are potential security threats is deeply rooted across the political spectrum in Pakistan. Pakistani authorities have already alleged that 14 of 24 suicide bombings in the country this year were carried out by Afghan nationals. 

But it doesn’t take a violent attack to incite racism and hostility against Afghan refugees.

Even the smallest trigger, like tension during a cricket match between the two neighbours, can lead to a renewed outpouring of xenophobia.

Given the scale of the latest threat – Islamabad claims there are more than 1.7 million undocumented Afghans in the country – the issue has gained some belated international attention.

But the truth is that last week’s announcement comes on the heels of dangerous rhetoric and sentiment that has been brewing for some time. For weeks, the interim government in Pakistan (the country has a caretaker set-up until elections currently set for February 2024) has been signalling that both the deteriorating security situation and the continued economic downturn is due to the presence of Afghan refugees. 

Last month, the government went as far as to offer financial incentives to anyone who could provide them with information on smuggling rings. In the current environment of severe economic anxiety and deeply rooted hostility towards Afghans, this led to the rounding up of large numbers of Afghans, including many who had been in the country legally for years.

But the most recent announcement has caught both government bureaucrats and refugee support groups in Pakistan off-guard. There is no reliable information on how many Afghans are in Pakistan, or how many of them possess proper IDs. This is made all the more difficult by the fact that Afghans have been seeking refuge in their neighbouring countries for decades.

The first massive wave of Afghan refugees coming to Pakistan (and Iran), dates back to 1979, when the Soviet Union began its 10-year occupation of Afghanistan, but Afghans and Pakistanis have been moving across the Durand Line since long before Pakistan was even a country.

In the 40 years since the Soviet occupation, waves of forcibly displaced Afghans have come to Pakistan (and Iran). Since then, they have settled, returned back to Afghanistan, and come back again as the situation in their country has ebbed and flowed.

Official estimates for the number of registered refugees is somewhere around 1.4 million. In addition to the unregistered refugees, this would mean there are more than three million Afghans in Pakistan. And this is not to mention the thousands who left Afghanistan after the collapse of Ashraf Ghani’s Western-backed government in August 2021, and who are awaiting decisions on their asylum applications for third countries (mostly the US, European nations, and Australia). Only a very small number of those applications are believed to have been processed to date. 

An unworkable plan

Regardless of being wrong-headed in the first place, the government order is extremely vague and unclear. Pakistani government officials have privately said they lack the resources and a workable strategy to execute the order, and they’re worried it may lead to further chaos. 

The Ministry of State and Frontier Regions eventually released a clarification, saying that Afghans with valid IDs “are allowed to temporarily reside in Pakistan”, and that “no harassment or undue adverse action” should be taken against Afghans with proper documents.

However, the statement came out after hundreds of Afghans had already been sent back. The order provides no details on how “temporarily” documented Afghans can stay in the country, and fails to take into account the large numbers of people who have been unable to receive or renew their documents over the years.

It also provides no guidelines for those who were born in Pakistan but lack IDs for a variety of reasons, including the increased difficulty of obtaining such documents. And it makes no mention of those whose visas may have just expired and face major hurdles renewing them – Pakistan’s diplomatic outposts in Afghanistan have almost entirely stopped processing visa applications. Currently, commission workers charge between a few hundred and two thousands dollars per visa. Nor does it say anything of the asylum applicants awaiting appointments at US or EU embassies in Islamabad, where they were instructed to go by Western diplomatic officials.

The Afghan government’s response to Pakistan’s latest threat has been inconsistent. On the one hand, they called it “a great injustice”, but on the other, they announced the creation of a new camp near the Durand Line.

However, a camp in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province is unlikely to be a safe or well-resourced refuge, as Afghanistan itself has been struggling with what the UN has called one of the “largest” humanitarian crises on Earth. Over the last week, the country has also been struck by a series of earthquakes and aftershocks that have led to thousands of deaths and levelled more than a dozen villages across the western province of Herat.

The human consequences

With global attention moving away from Afghanistan to Ukraine, and now Gaza, international support for humanitarian relief for Afghans is declining rapidly. Furthermore, no country recognises the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate as the official Afghan government, which limits cash or aid for Kabul to deal with the potential influx of hundreds of thousands of deportees at a time. 

The humanitarian fallout from this policy, if enacted, is going to be severe on both sides of the Durand Line. Afghans in Pakistan are, by and large, poor, and this policy will force them to make tough decisions that will likely only worsen their already precarious situations.

Inside Pakistan, Afghans already suffer from exclusion and xenophobia. This will make it much worse, as they will be met with even more suspicion and hostility by their neighbours and police.

The psychological impact and trauma will also be significant. Inside Pakistan, Afghans already suffer from exclusion and xenophobia. This will make it much worse, as they will be met with even more suspicion and hostility by their neighbours and police. Financial and emotional frustration will further increase the risk of extremism – the very thing Islamabad says it wants to address with these expulsions. 

Equally important are concerns about the policies of the Afghan government, which is denying basic rights to its citizens, including the right to education for girls above the sixth grade. Given that a significant number of refugees in Pakistan are girls and women, how will the caretaker government square this reality with the global outcry against the Taliban’s restrictions on Afghan girls and women?

The vague nature of the policy has broader implications.

For example, 750,000 stateless ethnic Bengalis live in Pakistan without any formal ID. Most were born in the country and are entitled to full citizenship, but the state doesn’t recognise them as its own. As the government has gone to great lengths to say that this policy is directed towards any illegal immigrant, what would it mean for the undocumented Bengalis who live in the urban slums of Karachi? 

It’s not just Pakistan’s fault

Putting the motives of the caretaker government of Pakistan aside, there is, however, another issue we must confront, one that could – or should – cause great discomfort for much of the world.

It needs to be asked why the governments of Afghanistan’s neighbours should bear the sole responsibility for supporting Afghan refugees? Is geographic proximity the only determinant on who is responsible for supporting vulnerable groups, especially as the current crisis in Afghanistan was caused by others?

No one should be led to believe that the cause of Pakistan’s increased insecurity is millions of Afghan refugees, many of whom have been living in the country for decades. 

Support from other countries – many of which were actively involved in various conflicts in Afghanistan that led to the displacement of millions and widespread destruction – is meagre at best. These nations, including the NATO alliance that occupied Afghanistan for 20 years, and the former Soviet Union, whose 10-year occupation first started Afghanistan’s troubles, seem to be completely uninterested in providing support or solutions to the millions of displaced Afghans in Pakistan, Iran, or Afghanistan. 

Pledges made at international conferences – both during and after the Western occupation – often remain unfulfilled, or provide only a tiny fraction of what Afghans need. Currently, the World Food Programme and the World Health Organization both say they’re facing massive funding gaps for their assistance programmes in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s security challenges are a real issue for the country. But this is why they require a clear, well-designed, and robust response. This order is not that. No one should be led to believe that the cause of Pakistan’s increased insecurity is millions of Afghan refugees, many of whom have been living in the country for decades. 

At the same time, affluent nations in the West, many of whom have been accused of war crimes and rights abuses in Afghanistan, have much still to answer for.

Rather than working to address the mess they helped create, many Western leaders are ignoring the plight of Afghan refugees and preferring to help those in Europe who look and sound more like them. This preference was made very clear in the statements of both world leaders and the international media after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

Yes, the Pakistani government is wrong for making this rash announcement, which won’t begin to address the security issues plaguing its citizens. But it also offers a reminder that those claims of empathy from supposed rights champions in Western capitals now ring more hollow than ever.

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