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The Unjust Removal of Afghans from Pakistan

Image Credit: Reuters
The Unjust Removal of Afghans from Pakistan

At a press conference on October 3, former caretaker Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti announced that all illegal immigrants had until November 1 to voluntarily leave Pakistan, or they would be deported by the authorities. The plans were detailed the day before in a state-run media article, which described the expulsion of those with Afghan citizenship as the second phase, allegedly because the “lot is involved in funding, facilitating and smuggling terrorists whereas 700,000 Afghans have not renewed their proof of residence in Pakistan.” Despite the other two phases addressing illegal residents and those with proof of residence cards more generally, with hopes of repatriating over 1.1 million people, there appeared to be an overwhelming focus on Afghans. This plan is called the Illegal Foreigners Repatriation Plan, and the manner in which it is being carried out has been criticised both domestically and internationally.

The spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) responded to a statement by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which urged Pakistan to “suspend forcible returns of Afghan nationals.” It claimed that the plan would “disproportionately impact” undocumented Afghans due to many of them being at “grave risk of human rights violations if returned to Afghanistan,” reminding Islamabad that mass deportations would “amount to refoulement in violation of international human rights law.” In its response, the MoFA spokesperson said that the plan applied to all “irrespective of their nationality,” citing their “record of the last forty years in hosting” Afghans as evidence of the seriousness they accord to the protection of the vulnerable.

The harmful generalisation of Afghan migrants as criminals, found in the state-run media article, has historically been used as a justification for the deportation and expulsion of Afghans from Pakistan. Beena Kirad has argued that this characterisation even pre-dates the five waves of Afghan refugee migration to Pakistan following the Soviet invasion in 1979, the take-over by and the war between the mujahideen in 1992, the Taliban capture of Kabul in 1996, the drought and famine of the mid-1990s and again after the US-led invasion in 2001. Six million Afghan refugees are believed to have fled Afghanistan between the Soviet and US-led invasions into Iran and Pakistan.

Pakistan is a signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which protects people from collective expulsion, arbitrary detention, abuse by state employees and discrimination based on nationality or race.

Kirad found that some Pakistanis have viewed the refugees as “easy scapegoats bearing all responsibility for the hardships that the Pakistani population faces,” though noting the illegal trade and arms smuggling between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Weapons smuggled from Afghanistan are allegedly being used by the likes of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) against Pakistan’s security forces and civilians and are being sold by the Afghan Taliban to fund itself.

But to equate all Afghan refugees with criminals is both wrong and an injustice, as many of them have fled from violence rather than wanting any part in it. At least 600,000 Afghan refugees and migrants came to Pakistan in the wake of the Taliban take-over of Kabul in August 2021, bringing the number in Pakistan to an estimated 3 or 4 million. 1.3 million are registered as legal refugees, while around 1.7 million are believed to have no documentation. But the desperation and fear motivating this move means it is no surprise that many were undocumented, as rights groups detailed how many fled Afghanistan because they were at risk of being targeted by the Taliban for having worked with international organisations and forces, the former government or for promoting human rights. As in many conflicts, people would have lacked the time, stability and resources to proceed to Pakistan through so-called ‘legal routes.’

Bugti’s announcement did not come out of the blue, however, with reports that at least 700 Afghans had been arrested in the month of September alone after thousands of people had been deported in each of the past two years. Human Rights Watch challenged Pakistan’s forced return of refugees in 2017, with police abuses and deportation threats leading to the departure of 365,000 of Pakistan’s registered Afghan refugees, as well as 200,000 undocumented Afghans, also as an apparent response to security incidents and poor Kabul-Islamabad relations.

The rights organisation has raised the alarm against the most recent incarnation of this policy amidst “widespread abuses against Afghans,” with over 375,000 Afghans “forced out” to Afghanistan between mid-September and the end of November. The reported abuses include mass detentions, seized property, destruction of identity documents and threats of sexual assault. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is also concerned that Afghans are being expelled during the winter and an ongoing economic crisis in Afghanistan.

The British media has picked up on these developments, in part because it means that Afghan soldiers trained and funded by the UK face deportation. One Afghan interpreter has also apparently been deported to Afghanistan from Pakistan after the UK failed to grant him sanctuary when he was eligible for it, though he has now managed to return to Pakistan. A former general described this overall situation as a “disgrace” and a “betrayal” by the British, with the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) and Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) having been set up by the British government for those Afghans who worked alongside the British, those who laboured for causes for which the Afghan Taliban are not sympathetic and those vulnerable under the regime to be relocated to the UK to prevent reprisal attacks.

These resettlement schemes have been criticised as flawed and slow, underpinning an inherent double standard in the UK regarding the treatment of Afghan refugees as compared with Ukrainian refugees. Twenty-four thousand six hundred people eligible for the various Afghan resettlement schemes have been brought to the UK, but over 2,000 such Afghan refugees are still in limbo in Pakistan as their situation becomes more precarious amidst the expulsions and deportations.

Pakistan is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which defines the term “refugee” and outlines the protections and rights refugees are entitled to, at the heart of which is the principle of non-refoulement, such that a “refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom.” This principle is particularly important in the case of Afghans in Pakistan who would be targeted by the regime on their return to Afghanistan, and is widely accepted as customary international law. The Convention also prevents expulsion, except under strict conditions, and guarantees the right to social protection. But Pakistan is a signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which obligates the country to respect the rights of every human regardless of their citizenship or migration status. This protects people from collective expulsion, arbitrary detention, abuse by state employees and discrimination based on nationality or race. Whether or not a person is considered to be “legal” or not is thus irrelevant when it comes to human rights and the treatment of migrants and refugees.

The security situation in Pakistan is undoubtedly worsening, with an alarming rise in terror attacks this year since the Taliban takeover of Kabul two years ago, in addition to its economic challenges. But Pakistan has a duty to its Afghan inhabitants that requires empathy and considerate distinctions to be made on a case-by-case basis rather than overseeing mass expulsions defined by fear and generalisations about criminality. Pakistan and Iran have received the highest number of Afghans since the late 70s, and the international community, particularly those countries that have been directly involved in Afghanistan over the years, should make a more concerted effort to support Afghan refugees as it has with Ukrainian refugees. But Pakistan cannot rest on the fact that it has “carried this burden” for decades to excuse this policy now.

Mary Hunter

Mary Hunter is a PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews, researching the Islamisation of Pakistan. She is also a freelance writer on issues relating to Islamophobia, Pakistan and its diaspora in the UK.

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