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Deportation Dilemma: Pakistan’s Approach to Undocumented Immigrants

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Deportation Dilemma: Pakistan's Approach to Undocumented Immigrants

On October 3 2023, Pakistan, a warm host to one of the biggest refugee communities, declared its decision to deport all illegal migrants from its territory. The end of October was announced as the deadline for the voluntary departure of all such migrants. After the deadline, any undocumented immigrant to be found within the confines of the land is to be arrested and/or forcefully expelled. Though the decision is met with mixed reactions, with many human rights observers inside and outside of the country considering the move as high-handed, it is crucial to keep in mind the precursors of such a move.

Pakistan has always welcomed the incursion of refugees and migrants who need a safe haven from unforthcoming conditions at home. A major chunk of the refugee population in the country are Afghan refugees. At the time of the announcement, Afghan undocumented migrants in Pakistan made up a population of 1.7 million. The decision is not for the Afghan illegal migrants alone. Instead, immigrants belonging to various other nations illegally living in the country are also expected to leave the country voluntarily following the announcement. Notwithstanding the limited resources that the country could offer, the state has never backed out from any help that it might offer the refugees, despite its economic standing. However, hospitality has come with a price for Pakistan. While the migrant communities added to the cultural richness of the country, various concerns began surfacing over time.

Islamabad should not let incidents of flawed implementation dampen the goodwill garnered from Afghan refugees and international humanitarian voices over the past decades.

Today, Pakistan is barely in a financial position to cater to its own people. Hosting such a huge population of illegal migrants is a major source of resource depletion and, in the case of Pakistan, security reservations. Opinions against undocumented migrants are often rather punitive. Undocumented immigration is mostly viewed as a financial burden on taxpayers due to the costs associated with law enforcement, border security, and actions to avert, detain, and expel undocumented individuals. Additionally, associated misconducts such as human smuggling and trafficking further add to these costs. The adverse effects of the struggling economy and unregulated economic practices of such immigrants can cause a sense of isolation and estrangement among the local population. In light of this, it is imperative to give careful consideration to the dignified voluntary return of undocumented refugees.

Though economic factors can be a vital reason, an even imminent concern for the state of Pakistan has been the maintenance of security. While it is unconfirmed whether refugees are responsible for the law and order situation in Pakistan, they are vulnerable to crime due to inadequate government monitoring. Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti, while speaking on the undocumented Afghan immigrants in Pakistan, underlined, “There are no two opinions that we are attacked from within Afghanistan and Afghan nationals are involved in attacks on us,” he stated, “We have evidence.” Mr Bugti maintained that this year, “14 out of 24” suicide attacks in Pakistan were carried out by Afghan nationals.

Pakistan claims that following the takeover of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the leadership and fighters from the banned Tehrik-i-Pakistan (TTP) have moved to Afghanistan and have amplified cross-border attacks into Pakistan. Afghan establishment has refuted such claims of harbouring militants by underlining its commitment to counterterrorism. However, Pakistan cannot tolerate the exploitation of illegal border crossings. Islamabad does not aim to harm its economic ties with Kabul either since it provides the latter access to the global market. Yet, the Afghan regime has not taken the developments lightly and has notified Islamabad that “negative media statements, hurdles facing transit trade and harassing Afghan refugees” could negatively impact bilateral relations.

Likewise, political and human rights activists blame the Pakistani government for mistreating Afghans, forcing them to leave. A citywide strike was observed in Quetta on November 3. Pashtun political groups, including the Awami National Party, National Democratic Movement, Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, and Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, called for a strike to protest the forced expulsion of Afghans. Besides, Pakistan’s Supreme Court has received a petition from rights activists to stop the deportation. The case has not yet been scheduled for a hearing. Pakistan has yet not considered pleas by refugee agencies and international organisations to review its expulsion plans.

According to a public notice released by the Ministry of Interior on 31 October, the public is urged to report any unlawful immigrants in their local area to the authorities. People are advised to report any information regarding non-nationals who possess fraudulent identity documents or have obtained property through such means. The deportation of undocumented immigrants is said to continue. However, the state has asked the people to duly report any event of ill-treatment or abuse by government officials in this regard.

Following the announcement up until the culmination of the deadline, around 140,000 refugees, largely Afghans, had willingly left the country. This includes children of Afghan refugees born and brought up in Pakistan for years who have never been to Afghanistan and consider Pakistan their home.

Granted, the decision was out of the need to ensure Pakistan’s financial and, more importantly, physical security, but its flawed enforcement has allowed observers the room to point fingers at the intent of the state. Every other day, a story of people held in detention without any valid reason, subjected to demands for bribery or intimidated to leave the country is reported. Pakistan still stands by its long-term commitment to hosting at-risk refugees, but the country is not in a position to risk its security for the cause. However, the people enforcing the expulsion of undocumented refugees should also bear in mind that Pakistan also does not want to lose the camaraderie of the Afghan people. Islamabad should not let incidents of flawed implementation dampen the goodwill garnered from Afghan refugees and international humanitarian voices over the past decades. Therefore, a vigilant and cautious execution of the eviction orders should be warranted.

Fareha Iqtidar Khan

Fareha Iqtidar Khan serves as a Senior Associate Editor at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research. Holding an MPhil in International Relations from the National Defence University, she also occasionally teaches at esteemed public sector universities.

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