Contradictions Between Pakistan’s Refugee Repatriation and Foreign Policy

The communist regime in the 1980s stripped Afghan refugees of their citizenship and properties for fleeing war-torn Afghanistan to Pakistan and other countries. However, in 2001, following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, the Afghan government allowed dual citizenship for all Afghans, including those who were forced or who voluntarily gave up their Afghan nationality. Over four decades, two generations of Afghan-origin citizens lived and were born in Pakistan, but they remain stateless today. Pakistan signed the Geneva Accords in 1988, which included a bilateral agreement between the Zia government and the communist regime in Kabul for the repatriation of around 3.5 million Afghan refugees. Even then, the agreement stipulated that repatriation should be voluntary. However, the current refugee repatriation policy, which includes forced repatriation implemented by the caretaker setup, explicitly contradicts the objectives of the foreign policy of Pakistan. This policy will affect bilateral relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan and people-to-people relations.

The current population of Afghans in Pakistan, as of November, is estimated to be 3.7 million, of which 1.32 million have Proof of Registration (PoR) cards, 88,299 have Afghan Citizen Cards (ACCs), and 775,000 are considered to be undocumented. Only 31% of Afghans live in refugee villages run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Pakistani government jointly, with the remaining 69% having integrated into Pakistan. Around 26% of people reside in Balochistan, and over 55% in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) region. Since 2021, over 600,000 Afghans have entered Pakistan under registered categories, but neither the Pakistani government nor the UNHCR have catered to them. These new refugees were to be resettled in other countries. Many lament that at least those Afghans born in Pakistan deserved citizenship as guaranteed by the constitution of Pakistan. Section 4 of the Pakistan Citizenship Act of 1951 explicitly says: “Every person born in Pakistan after the commencement of this Act shall be a citizen of Pakistan by birth …”

Pakistan must take appropriate measures against illegal refugees for the security of its people and properties. However, it must not be at the expense of bilateral and people-to-people relations.

On 3 October 2023, the Pakistani government’s Apex Committee gave a green signal to law enforcement agencies to initiate the process of repatriation of illegal refugees residing in Pakistan. Pakistani government blames illegal refugees for creating an atmosphere of drug trafficking, smuggling, terrorism, and the exchange of illegal finances across the border. Experts argue that blaming refugees shifted attention from Pakistan’s foreign policy failure in pursuit of “strategic depth” to the poor refugees. In 2023, according to the Ministry of Interior, terrorist activities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Balochistan have increased by 59% and 39%, respectively. Pakistani caretaker government have claimed that Afghan nationals conducted 14 out of 24 terrorist attacks.

Between 2014 and 2018, the amount of products smuggled into Pakistan more than tripled. Informal business and informal trade at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border promote the informal economy. The informal economy of Pakistan constitutes around 40% of the GDP, with an annual theft of 6% of the GDP. The increase in terrorist activities and illegal activities resulted in the making of deportation plans.

Implemented on 1 November 2023, Phase 1 of the deportation plan targeted illegal Afghans, which included Afghan refugees with no documents, with fake Pakistani papers, and whose visas had expired. The Pakistani government has said that the assets of illegal refugees will be confiscated and warned locals from protecting any illegal refugee. Besides this, the government has also advised the Afghan refugees not to carry livestock and cash of more than PKR 50,000. However, reports have emerged that law enforcement officers are not even sparing cash below the threshold and personal belongings, including jewellery. After the crackdown, the number of crossings at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border has risen to 10,000 per day compared to 300 per day before the deportation plan.

For security and economic reasons, Pakistan has the right to repatriate illegal refugees and is not bound by any international legal obligation. However, the measures used to repatriate Afghans will not only damage inter-governmental relations but also people-to-people ties. This deportation plan also contradicts Pakistan’s foreign policy objectives, which encourage the preservation and strengthening of fraternal relations with Muslim countries and the development of friendly relations with neighbours.

From the legal point of view, Pakistan has no legal obligation to follow in this case. Though Pakistan is not a signatory, the 1951 Refugee Treaty and its 1967 Protocols specify that some provisions of the convention grant formal status to customary international law and, thus, are instructive for even non-parties to the convention. According to Article 33 of the Refugee Convention, a nation is bound by customary international law to uphold the “non-refoulement” concept, which prohibits forcibly returning refugees who have fled their home country because they fear for their lives. However, under the current state of affairs in Afghanistan, where the Interim Afghan Government (IAG) asserts that all residents live in a safe and secure environment, this premise is not applicable. Following the United States’ exit in 2021, 600,000 refugees were admitted under the requirement that they apply for resettlement abroad.

Nonetheless, Pakistan has to pay an economic price for the deportation policy. Deportation of refugees will badly impact the economy, especially in smaller provinces such as Balochistan and KP, because Afghan nationals are hardworking and serve as a source of cheap labour. Many Afghans are involved in working in fruit orchards, coal and marble mines, public works, and the construction industry in Punjab and Sindh and provide services in cross-border goods trade in KP and Balochistan. Their deportation will have an impact on the economy, especially on KP.

Moreover, Afghanistan is not economically ready to host them and mostly relies on insufficient foreign aid. This has security implications for Pakistan. Just 39.7% of the 2023 humanitarian response plan for Afghanistan has been funded by pledges as of yet. The mass deportation will further burden the already strained humanitarian aid system. At the same time, Pakistan’s restriction on Afghan refugees carrying movable assets such as livestock and money will end up plunging them into poverty. If the Taliban failed to manage the influx of Afghans, they might join hands with dozens of terrorist organisations, especially the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), to attack Pakistan. TTP might find it easy to lure estranged refugees into its fold.

Pakistan must take appropriate measures against illegal refugees for the security of its people and properties. However, it must not be at the expense of bilateral and people-to-people relations. Towards this end, Pakistan should simplify the visa application procedure for Afghans and make it free of corruption. Pakistan should also carefully manage border control to avoid negative impacts on economic and people-to-people relations with Afghanistan. While addressing security concerns, Pakistan can utilise international forums to communicate its challenges in providing support to illegal Afghan immigrants.

Usman Ali

Usman Ali is a graduate of International Relations from the National University of Modern Languages, NUML, Islamabad. His research interests include the affairs of the South Asian countries. He currently serves as a Research Assistant at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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