Pakistan’s Mass Deportation of Afghans Poses Risks to Regional Stability
Pakistan’s Mass Deportation of Afghans Poses Risks to Regional Stability
Afghan refugees arrive to cross the Pakistan-Afghanistan Torkham border on November 2, 2023, following Pakistan's government decision to expel people illegally staying in the country. Farooq Naeem / AFP
Q&A / Asia 13 minutes

Pakistan’s Mass Deportation of Afghans Poses Risks to Regional Stability

Pakistan has started repatriations that could force millions of Afghans back to their crisis-wracked home country. As Crisis Group expert Ibraheem Bahiss explains in this Q&A, the policy could bring further trouble to the region, notwithstanding Islamabad’s efforts to justify itself on security grounds.

What is happening on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border?

On 3 October, Pakistan’s caretaker government announced it would carry out mass deportations – known under domestic law as an Illegal Foreigners Repatriation Plan – asking all concerned to leave the country before 1 November. Although the plan purported to apply to all foreigners residing in the country illegally, it appears designed to target Afghans, millions of whom have sought refuge in Pakistan over the years. Pakistan hosts an estimated three to four million Afghan refugees and migrants, including at least 600,000 who have crossed the border since August 2021, when the Taliban seized power for a second time in Afghanistan. Of these, 1.3 million are registered as legal refugees, holding Proof of Registration cards, while an additional 850,000 have received Afghan Citizen Cards from the Pakistani authorities, giving them some protections but not all of those afforded to registered refugees. Some 1.7 million more Afghans are believed to be residing in the country without any documentation at all. This last figure could be a significant underestimate, as people living on the mountainous frontier are accustomed to moving back and forth across the border, often without travel papers from either state.

An Afghan exodus is now under way. Tens of thousands headed for the border before the 1 November deadline, and hundreds of thousands have followed since. Many who left after the deadline appear to have been deported forcibly or under duress. Despite immediate outcry from the UN and other international bodies, Islamabad seems intent on forcing all undocumented Afghans back to their home country – and maybe many others as the plan progresses. In Phase 1 of the plan, which took effect on 1 November, the state is targeting “illegal” Afghans, meaning those with no documentation, those with fake Pakistani papers and those who have overstayed their visas. The government has not announced a clear timeline for the plan, but it has indicated that in Phase 2 it could go after Afghan Citizen Card holders. In Phase 3, it may send back even those holding Proof of Registration cards. The Proof of Registration cards for this cohort expired in June, and it is unclear if Afghanistan, Pakistan and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will be able to reach an agreement on renewing the cardholders’ status.

Authorities ... announced they will be building large holding centres where they will detain foreigners pending deportation.

Authorities also announced they will be building large holding centres where they will detain foreigners pending deportation. Since the deadline for “voluntary” returns expired, however, they have taken many detained Afghans straight to the main border crossings in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces and, in effect, pushed them through.  

Pakistani authorities have also said they will confiscate money and property belonging to “illegal foreigners” and take punitive action against locals housing or protecting anyone who, in their view, fits into that category. The interior ministry established a hotline, encouraging Pakistanis to report any “illegal foreigners” living in their midst. Police reportedly warned of fines for landlords who rent to and firms that employ Afghans lacking proper documents.

The Pakistani state’s cues have already had pernicious effects. Although the plan targets “illegal foreigners”, anecdotal reports have emerged of local law enforcement harassing Afghans regardless of status. Registered refugees have reported police raids on their homes, confiscation of property, destruction of Proof of Registration cards, arrests without charge and demands for bribes. Aid groups report a “dramatic surge” of Afghans traversing the border since Pakistan rolled out its plan, with the number of crossings rising to 10,000 per day compared to a daily average of 300 beforehand. Those who have departed include Afghans with valid documents who say they are fleeing police harassment. Islamabad has also imposed restrictions on what returnees can bring with them – livestock and cash in excess of 50,000 rupees (roughly $175) must be left behind – but many complain that law enforcement officers are confiscating even cash amounts below that threshold and personal effects, such as jewellery. There are also isolated reports of police allegedly asking for sexual favours from Afghan women looking to avoid detention. 

Why is Pakistan taking this step?

Pakistan has threatened sweeping action along these lines for years but never followed through. Some reports suggest Islamabad decided to do so now because of evolving perceptions of the terrorist threat facing Pakistan – with the interim foreign minister, for instance, claiming that Afghan nationals had been involved in several suicide attacks on security forces along the frontier. The more specific reason for this dramatic step, however, seems to be the latest escalation of Pakistan’s worsening dispute with Afghanistan over the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a militant group also known as the Pakistani Taliban, which swears allegiance to the Taliban in Kabul. The TTP has been increasingly aggressive in border areas over the past year, and Islamabad is seeking ways of pushing Kabul to curb its activity. In other words, the mass deportation is primarily driven by considerations – in particular Pakistan’s loss of patience with the Taliban – that have little to do with any purported danger posed by migrants and refugees themselves.

Pakistan welcomed the Taliban’s return to power in 2021, mistakenly expecting its support for the movement during the long war in Afghanistan to pay dividends in containing the TTP. Instead, the TTP’s resurgence caused relations between Islamabad and Kabul to deteriorate. Under Noor Wali Mehsud, who became the TTP’s emir in 2018 after a U.S. drone strike killed his predecessor, the organisation has gained strength, amalgamating dozens of splinter groups as well as attracting new militant outfits to its cause. It has grown still more emboldened since the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan. Kabul offered to mediate talks between the TTP and Islamabad, but those negotiations stalled in November 2022, with the associated ceasefire breaking down. Since then, the TTP has conducted a series of devastating attacks on Pakistani soil, killing hundreds of policemen. Pakistani authorities are struggling to control the porous border.

Islamabad has pushed hard for Kabul to crack down on the TTP, claiming that the group launches operations from Afghan soil. But the pressure has been in vain, as Taliban officials publicly deny the TTP is present in Afghanistan, arguing that the group is Pakistan’s internal problem and not Kabul’s to resolve. Taliban officials further contend that the bulk of the TTP operates inside Pakistani territory, beyond the reach of Taliban security forces, and that Kabul cannot be expected to fight others’ battles for them – especially as Afghanistan struggles to recover from decades of civil war.

Such messages from Kabul raise the hackles of Pakistani officials, who claim that the TTP’s leadership sits in Afghanistan and argue that the group has benefited from the Taliban’s rise to power. In jailbreaks during the Taliban’s march to Kabul in 2021, hundreds of veteran TTP fighters escaped, reinvigorating the group. Pakistan also says the TTP has acquired U.S. weaponry that fell into the Taliban’s hands when U.S. troops withdrew. More recently, Pakistani officials have complained that numerous Afghans are joining the TTP insurgency.

Pakistan has tried several tacks to convince Kabul to crack down on the TTP.

Pakistan has tried several tacks to convince Kabul to crack down on the TTP, including diplomatic outreach to the Taliban and on-and-off backing of their cause in international forums. Islamabad also invokes the 2020 Doha peace deal the U.S. reached with the Taliban, under which the latter vowed to prevent militants inside Afghanistan from attacking other countries. To prevent infiltration, Pakistan resumed work on border fencing, attempting to complete the barrier, but construction met with stiff resistance from the Taliban – who, like earlier Afghan authorities, do not recognise the border, calling it a confection of British colonial rule. In a bid to put economic pressure on the Taliban, Islamabad has also periodically closed the crossings into Afghanistan and raised bureaucratic hurdles for Afghan goods transiting Pakistan, including temporarily halting shipments through its seaports. In 2022, Pakistani forces even carried out airstrikes inside Afghanistan, allegedly targeting TTP fighters. The commercial moves particularly hurt the Taliban, as Pakistan remains Afghanistan’s largest trading partner and Kabul depends on customs fees for a large part of government revenue. But the pressure has not led them to accede to Pakistani demands vis-à-vis the TTP.

Pakistan’s decision to expel what could be millions of Afghans is the most serious step Islamabad has taken so far. It may have been prompted by a major attack the TTP launched in early September near Chitral, a town in Pakistan’s northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region. The raid, in which an estimated two hundred militants swarmed two border posts, may have led Pakistani authorities to look toward more extreme measures.

How are the Taliban reacting?

Afghan authorities are ill prepared to receive massive numbers of returnees. Already, Afghanistan is in the midst of one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises, reeling from devastating earthquakes, economic challenges and sanctions. Afghanistan’s harsh winter also means dispossessed returnees are arriving at the worst of times. The Taliban government has urged Pakistan not to forcibly deport Afghans without “preparation”, presumably a request for time for the returnees as well as the Afghan authorities to ready themselves. An extended pre-return period would presumably allow refugees to be repatriated in a more orderly manner. Taliban officials are also calling on Pakistan to avoid what they term “mistreatment” of Afghans. Top figures in Kabul have heavily criticised Pakistan’s decision to confiscate the returnees’ cash and belongings, calling it a “theft of their property” and a violation of their rights.

On 26 October, with Pakistan’s deportation deadline fast approaching and tens of thousands having already crossed the border of their own volition, the Taliban emir appointed a commission consisting of senior figures from Afghan ministries to manage the mass returns. The commission established temporary camps, including in the Torkham and Lal Pur districts near the Pakistani border, to shelter and feed returnees, who are also provided with temporary SIM cards for their mobile phones. International relief organisations are on site and working with Afghan officials. Meanwhile, the authorities are rushing to issue tazkiras, or national identity cards, for the returnees, and rumour has it they may soon provide the poorest with plots of government land.

The 2023 humanitarian response plan for Afghanistan is only 35 per cent covered by pledges so far.

The Taliban government has also established bank accounts for Afghans who want to donate to support the returnees, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has instructed Afghan embassies and consulates to seek international assistance. These requests for funds come at a time when most donors are cutting budgets for aid to Afghanistan, in part out of deep frustration that the Taliban have not softened their tough restrictions on the rights of women and girls. It is far from certain that the mass deportations will reverse the trend of dwindling assistance. An appeal from the UN for support for Asian countries hosting Afghan refugees (announced before the deportation policy came into effect) is less than 19 per cent funded, and the 2023 humanitarian response plan for Afghanistan is only 35 per cent covered by pledges so far – meaning that the mass deportation will tremendously strain an aid system that was already under stress.

Taliban officials in Kabul claim that they have been taking Islamabad’s security concerns seriously. Crisis Group has confirmed reports that the authorities have cracked down on Afghans suspected of assisting the TTP, arresting hundreds of individuals since September. It seems unlikely, however, that this campaign will assuage Pakistan’s fears or persuade Islamabad to reverse the repatriation policy, which seems to enjoy public support in Pakistan – although many critics have also spoken out. Many Pakistani rights groups have urged the government to end the forcible repatriation of refugees, and as discussed below, top politicians and civil society activists have petitioned the Supreme Court to halt such deportations. 

What will happen next?

Pakistan’s forced repatriation policy risks precipitating a humanitarian catastrophe, with major ramifications for the region and beyond. The repatriation is a logistical nightmare for both Pakistan and Afghanistan. With thousands crowded into the narrow mountain passes between the countries, returnees must wait for days on the Pakistani side before officials let them through. Having no accommodations on site, they end up living on the roadside in dire conditions. Once across the border, returnees must wait for days on the Afghan side for the overwhelmed local authorities to register them and transport them to the makeshift camps. Prices for moving goods across the border have more than doubled since the deportation policy took effect, as demand for transport outstripped supply and roads became choked with traffic. 

Should the current rate of returns continue, with thousands of people crossing each day, Afghan authorities may soon be unable to cope with the returnees or provide them with essential services. Pakistan’s decision to not allow deportees to bring significant sums of money, cattle or other property with them means that almost all have been plunged into poverty upon crossing the border; returnees report having had to sell their immovable properties and livestock well below market value as they left in a hurry, some after having lived in Pakistan for decades. Thus deprived, and languishing in inadequate shelters, many will struggle to survive, especially if the winter proves harsh. Hamstrung by sanctions and banking restrictions, and battered by natural disasters, Afghanistan’s economy already cannot provide enough jobs for the 500,000 or so new entrants to the work force each year. It is hard to imagine how hundreds of thousands of returnees could find employment, especially when many of them have been away from Afghanistan for years, if not decades. Many of the returnees also worry about the Taliban’s restrictions on girls’ secondary and tertiary education. Those lacking familiarity with Afghanistan will surely struggle in other ways as well, lacking social networks once they cross the border.

Another vulnerable cohort are those who left Afghanistan seeking refuge after the Taliban’s takeover – including refugees who have not been formally registered.

Another vulnerable cohort are those who left Afghanistan seeking refuge after the Taliban’s takeover – including refugees who have not been formally registered. These people include journalists, as well as those who worked with the U.S. and NATO in fighting the Taliban and left fearing retribution. The Taliban have officially granted amnesty to the latter group, but the UN has recorded more than 200 cases of revenge killings.  

Wherever they fall on the vulnerability spectrum, many returnees will likely struggle to adjust to life in Afghanistan, and may well seek to build a future elsewhere, especially if they have no foreseeable prospect of leaving the confinement of the camps. Migration from Afghanistan could grow exponentially, raising concerns in Europe and along the migrant trail in countries such as Iran and Türkiye. 

Pakistan’s expulsion of Afghans may also pose serious security risks for both it and Afghanistan. Should the Taliban be unable to manage an influx of returnees desperate for work to sustain their families, as is likely, some might be enticed into criminality or armed opposition to the Taliban’s rule. Perversely, one of the winners in the ensuing chaos might be the TTP itself, which might find among the returnees’ cohort individuals who are familiar with Pakistan and could be persuaded to attack the state that upended their lives. 

What should be done? 

Pakistan’s returnee policy creates risks for international peace and security while running afoul of humanitarian principles and raising concerns under international law. The international legal principle of non-refoulement restricts the return of individuals facing a credible fear of persecution. While Pakistan is not a party to the UN Refugee Convention, it is a party to the UN Convention Against Torture, and in any case should apply the principle as a matter of custom, good practice or both. Whether from a legal or a humanitarian perspective, the forcible repatriation of vulnerable groups (including women who left for fear that their rights would be stripped under Taliban rule) is particularly concerning, as is the confiscation of returnees’ belongings. Already petitioners have challenged the repatriation plan in the Pakistani courts, highlighting that it “amounts to a reversal of a 45-year-old Pakistani state policy” and claiming that it “exceeds the powers of the caretaker cabinet”.

Foreign governments with influence in Islamabad ... should urge the caretaker administration to cancel the repatriation plan.

However the petitioners fare, greater outside pressure will also need to be brought to bear. Despite a busy global agenda, with wars in Gaza and Ukraine topping the headlines, international actors should devote more attention to this brewing crisis. Foreign governments with influence in Islamabad – including that in Washington – should urge the caretaker administration to cancel the repatriation plan. Failing that, they should press Islamabad at least to revise the unrealistic timeline it has announced, in particular pressing Pakistan and Afghanistan to reach an agreement for gradual repatriations, in a manner that does not breach legal and humanitarian rules, norms and principles. Islamabad and Kabul should work with humanitarian agencies to screen out of the repatriation pool prospective returnees who have credible persecution claims. International donors should support these efforts with financial and technical assistance. In this connection, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the UNHCR should reach a new agreement extending the refugee status of Proof of Registration cardholders; UN agencies should also ensure that Proof of Registration cards are quickly renewed and new applications speedily approved.

In addition, the United States, European Union member states, Canada and other Western countries with refugee resettlement programs should fast-track the resettlement of Afghan refugees, starting with those whom the UNHCR has already identified as at risk of persecution should they return to Afghanistan. The U.S. embassy has initiated moves in this direction, and others should follow suit. Working with the Pakistani government, UN agencies should further press Pakistani law enforcement to respect the protections afforded by refugee status. UN member states should back up these demands through bilateral channels.  

For their part, the Taliban should step up efforts to bring in returnees and abide by their protective duties, treating these people humanely and with dignity. Authorities should refrain from asking returnees why they left Afghanistan in the first place. While many of the returnees who sought shelter in Pakistan after 2021 will be political opponents of the new regime, the Taliban should strictly enforce their edicts on “general amnesty” for their former enemies.

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