Displeased over Afghan Taliban’s inaction to rein in Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) fighters operating from Afghan soil and increasing suicide attacks in the country, Islamabad took a drastic decision last month. Pakistan’s caretaker government announced on 2 October, that it would deport all ‘undocumented immigrants’ including Afghans, if they did not move out voluntarily by 1 November.[i] Pakistan is home to over 4 million Afghan migrants and refugees, out of which about 1.7 million are undocumented.[ii] Over the past one month, raids were conducted all over the country to hunt and send back Afghans without valid documents.[iii] The Taliban administration had vehemently opposed Islamabad’s decision, called the move “unacceptable” and had urged a reconsideration of the matter.[iv] Even as Afghanistan went into another downward spiral, after a 6.3 magnitude earthquake hit Herat recently, Pakistani authorities continued to move ahead in the process of deportation of Afghan asylum seekers in the country. Ever since the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan two years back, the relations between the neighbours have been stressful, Islamabad’s latest announcement marks a new low in its relation with Kabul. This ICWA Issue Brief looks at the trigger, context and significance of Islamabad’s decision to deport Afghans from Pakistan.
The Immediate Trigger behind Pakistan’s Decision
Late September, a blast at a mosque in Mastung city of the South-western Baluchistan province, near the border with Afghanistan killed at least 50 people during a religious celebration.[v] In a separate blast in a mosque near Peshawar City in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province at least five people were killed. That attack apparently targeted policemen praying in the mosque.[vi] Although no groups claimed responsibilities for the attacks, Pakistan claimed that Afghan nationals were involved in these terror attacks. The Pakistan’s Interior Minister, Sarfraz Bugti stated, “There have been 24 attacks since February. The Afghan nationals conducted 14 of them,”.[vii] Islamabad had also blamed them for smuggling and other militant attacks. Cash-strapped Pakistan, navigating record inflation and a tough International Monetary Fund bailout program, also said undocumented migrants have drained its resources for decades.[viii]
Afghans claimed that Islamabad’s allegations were not backed with evidence.[ix] The Taliban Administration in Kabul rejected the statements of the Pakistani Minister and added that Afghan citizens are not responsible for the security problems in Pakistan.[x] Zabihullah Mujahid, the Spokesperson for the Taliban Administration initially stated “As long as Afghan immigrants voluntarily and gradually leave Pakistan, the Pakistani government should tolerate it.” However, Islamabad decided to stick to the given deadline, on Nov 1, though the Taliban Administration in Kabul again urged Pakistan to give undocumented Afghans in the country more time to leave as pressure mounted at border posts where thousands of returnees have gathered, fleeing the threat of deportation.[xi] The Taliban’s acting Defense Minister Mullah Yaqoob called Pakistan's policy "cruel and barbaric".[xii]
Concerns over move to expel ‘illegal’ Afghans
Concerns were raised about the mechanism through which Pakistani authorities could identify and deport illegal immigrants. Around 1.3 million Afghans are registered refugees in Pakistan and 880,000 more have legal status to remain, according to the latest United Nations figures.[xiii] But caretaker Interior Minister Bugti stated a further 1.7 million Afghans were in Pakistan illegally.[xiv] Reportedly, the Pakistani police detained 800 Afghan immigrants in various suburbs of Islamabad, of which 400 were released after further investigation of their documents.[xv] Lawyers point out that many have valid visas, but the police have confiscated their passports. Horrifying videos show men and boys all looped together with rope like a herd of animals, being led away by police.[xvi] Afghan Embassy in Pakistan described Islamabad’s decision as “ruthless operation against Afghan refugees, without distinguishing between genders and even arresting women and children.”[xvii]
On October 3, the Apex Committee on the National Action Plan in Pakistan, which was presided over by caretaker Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar, resolved to expel illegal foreign nationals; constituted a task force to scrutinize fake identity cards issued to foreign nationals as well as their properties and businesses.[xviii] The official position is that refugees were required to stay in 54 refugee camps, (some forty four of which were in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, nine in Balochistan, one in Punjab) instead of which they spread all over the country.[xix] The Interior Ministry had sought to confiscate Afghan businesses and properties, assisted by the Special Branch and Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD).[xx] Reportedly, in Islamabad the situation was worse, the State had given refugees a deadline of 48 hours to shift to camps, demolished two ‘illegal’ settlements, and bulldozed another.[xxi] Amnesty International’s Asia division had expressed concern about the situation of Afghan immigrants in Pakistan and stressed that Afghan migrants in Pakistan are at risk of harassment, abuse, detention, and deportation.[xxii] According to the Human Rights Watch, the Pakistani Government has been using threats, abuse, and detention to coerce Afghan asylum seekers without legal status to return to Afghanistan. Many Afghans at risk of being deported are awaiting resettlement to the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, and Canada.[xxiii] The UN High Commission for Refugees as well as several organizations have appealed against the operation on the ground that seeking asylum is a ‘fundamental human right’. The United Arab Emirates has also appealed against Pakistan’s decision.[xxiv]
Rise in Return and Pressure in Afghanistan
Afghan refugees have sought refuge in Pakistan since the early 1980s, over the years there have been 7-8 big attempts to deport them, however, those drives fizzled out after Kabul and Islamabad developed some understanding. However, the treatment of Afghan refugees is said to have deteriorated significantly in Pakistan in recent years as they have been persistently blamed for security failures within the country. According to reports, more than 130,000 Afghans have left Pakistan since the order was issued, thereby creating bottlenecks on either side of the crossing points.[xxv] The Taliban in Afghanistan said some 60,000 Afghans returned between 23 Sept to 22 Oct from Pakistan and more than 80 percent of these have left via the northern Torkham border in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and Chaman crossing in Balochistan province, where the majority of Afghan refugees live.[xxvi] The recent daily returnee figures are three times higher than normal, according to the Taliban Refugee Ministry.[xxvii] In a statement issued on 31 Oct, the Afghan Taliban asked Pakistan not to forcibly deport Afghans without giving them sufficient notice.[xxviii] Pakistan on the other hand said it will begin to round up and expel any undocumented immigrant still in the country beyond 31 Oct. Pakistani authorities have decided to open a series of centers across the country to process hundreds of thousands of undocumented Afghans ahead of mass deportations.[xxix] Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial government stated that the Afghans would be held for one or two days in the holding centres for processing, starting from Nov 1.[xxx]
The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said Pakistan's plans create "serious protection risks" for women and girls forced to leave.[xxxi] Restrictions in Afghanistan, especially on female NGO workers, have led to shrinking employment opportunities for women there. While Pakistan says it will not target Afghans with legal status, many with proper documents also find themselves being targeted. UNHCR data shows that 14,700 documented Afghans left Pakistan (as of 18 Oct. 2023), more than double the 6,039 in all of last year. The Agency said in a statement that 78 percent of recent returning Afghans it spoke to cited fear of arrest in Pakistan as reason for their departure.[xxxii] Back in Afghanistan, the influx of returning Afghans has exerted pressure on already limited resources that are stretched by international sanctions on the banking sector and cuts in foreign aid after the Taliban takeover. The Afghan Ministry of Refugees said it intends to register returnees and then house them in temporary camps. A camp has been established in the Lalapor district of Nangarhar province to manage the newly returning refugees from Pakistan.[xxxiii] With the harsh winter looming, conditions in those makeshift camps are likely to be extremely difficult for the returnees. The Taliban administration said it will try to find jobs for the returnees. However, with the unemployment rate more than double since the Taliban takeover, that would be challenging task. The Taliban administration will need substantial aid and humanitarian assistance to deal with the rehabilitation and repatriation of the returnees from the international community. But the waning interest of the Western World, given the changing global order may render the availability of foreign assistance to Afghanistan even more difficult.
Understanding the Context of the Recent Developments
Pakistan played a key role in creating and bringing to power the Afghan Taliban in the 1990s. During the 20-year US led era in Afghanistan, the Pakistani establishment allowed the Taliban to operate from its soil. The TTP or the Pakistani Taliban – Pakistan’s biggest terror threat - is a byproduct of this relationship. The leaders of the TTP were trained with the Taliban and therefore deep bond developed between them. In a way, Afghan Taliban and TTP are part of the same phenomenon that Pakistan has fomented as an ideological project - TTP fought along with Afghan Taliban against the US and its allies for decades. Linked by the shared Pashtun ethnicity and kinship- TTP is believed to be the closest to the Afghan Taliban (among all the radical Islamist groups operational in the country). Immediately after taking control of Kabul on 15 August 2021, the Taliban set free hundreds of TTP prisoners, including prominent leaders, from Afghan jails. In this context, it is important to remember that the Pakistani Government was among the first to congratulate the same Taliban on taking over Kabul and then-Prime Minister Imran Khan even called it “breaking the chains of slavery”.[xxxiv]
Over the past two years, the Afghan Taliban in Kabul has also taken some steps to address Pakistan’s security concerns regarding the TTP. In August 2023 the Taliban’s Supreme Leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, issued a decree forbidding cross-border attacks.[xxxv] Later in September 2023, Afghan Taliban forces detained about 200 TTP fighters on Afghan territory.[xxxvi] Earlier in 2022, the Taliban hosted negotiations between Pakistan and the TTP that resulted in a ceasefire lasting five months.[xxxvii] When the Pakistani military carried out air raids in April last year on Afghan territory,[xxxviii] violating Afghanistan’s sovereignty and killing civilians, the response of the Taliban Administration was not as robust as expected. Taliban’s steps, however, have fallen far short of Pakistan’s expectations, resulting in the decision to expel undocumented Afghan refugees. The Taliban has condemned Pakistan’s actions, saying nationals are being punished for tensions between Islamabad and Kabul.[xxxix] Pakistan’s decision will also likely have impact on Pashtun Nationalist Parties such as Awami National Party and Pashtun Tahafuz Movement which may further intensify their anti-establishment narrative. The move has already been strongly opposed by Pashtun Parliamentarians in Pakistan like Mohsin Dawar and Afrasiab Khattak who warn that this forced removal could backfire against the country.
Ever since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, signs of tensions and frictions have been visible in the relations between Pakistan and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Issues such as the demarcation of Durand Line (the contested border that Afghanistan never accepted) and the Afghan Taliban’s alleged support for the TTP have caused strains in the relations. The expulsion of Afghan asylum seekers by Pakistan could now be an addition to the list of issues that may further contribute to Islamabad’s fraying ties with Kabul. Pakistanis might claim that this perhaps was the last resort left with the Pakistani Government to pressurize Afghan Taliban to act against TTP, nonetheless, it is a disheartening to see that Afghan migrants who fled war and conflict in their home country and sought refuge in Pakistan became tool in the hands of the host country to pressurize the Taliban – how useful this pressure tactic will be for Pakistan will only be known in the days to come.
[i] “Pakistan orders illegal immigrants, including 1.73 mln Afghans, to leave.” Reuters, Oct 3, 2023. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/pakistan-orders-all-illegal-immigrants-leave-after-suicide-bombings-2023-10-03/ ( Accessed on 31. 10.23)
[ii] “Afghans return to Taliban rule as Pakistan moves to expel 1.7 million”. Reuters, Oct 31, 2023. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/afghans-return-taliban-rule-pakistan-moves-expel-17-million-2023-10-31/#:~:text=There%20are%20more%20than%202.2,June%2030%2C%20leaving%20them%20vulnerable. ( Accessed on 31. 10.23)
[iii] “Afghan refugees could face serious human rights violations as Pakistan threatens to use force to evict them.” India Narrative, Oct 4, 2023. Available at: https://www.indianarrative.com/world-news/afghan-refugees-could-face-serious-human-rights-violations-as-pakistan-threatens-to-use-force-to-evict-them-152692.html ( Accessed on 31. 10.23)
[iv] “Pakistan’s plan to evict thousands of Afghans ‘unacceptable’, says Taliban”. Al Jazeera, Oct 4, 2023. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/10/4/pakistans-plan-to-evict-thousands-of-afghans-unacceptable-says-taliban ( Accessed on 31. 10.23)
[viii] “Afghans return to Taliban rule as Pakistan moves to expel 1.7 million”. Reuters, Oct 31, 2023. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/afghans-return-taliban-rule-pakistan-moves-expel-17-million-2023-10-31/#:~:text=There%20are%20more%20than%202.2,June%2030%2C%20leaving%20them%20vulnerable. ( Accessed on 31. 10.23)
[x] “Pakistan to deport over one million Afghan migrants; Kabul urges reconsideration”. The Khaama Press, Oct 4, 2023. Available at: https://www.khaama.com/pakistan-to-deport-over-one-million-afghan-migrants-kabul-urges-reconsideration/ ( Accessed on 31. 10.23)
[xi] “Taliban urges Pakistan to grant more time for undocumented Afghans to leave.” Al Jazeera, Nov 2, 2023. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/11/1/taliban-urges-pakistan-to-grant-more-time-for-undocumented-afghans-to-leave
[xiii] “UNHCR provides cash assistance to over 1 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan”
UNHCR Pakistan, July 2023, Available at: https://www.unhcr.org/pk/17767-unhcr-provides-cash-assistance-to-over-1-million-afghan-refugees-in-pakistan.html#:~:text=Pakistan%20hosts%20over%201.3%20million,to%20meet%20their%20basic%20needs. ( Accessed on 1. 11.23)
[xiv] “Govt sets deadline of 1Nov for illegal immigrants to leave Pakistan”. Dawn, Oct 3, 2021. Available at: https://www.dawn.com/news/1779106/govt-sets-deadline-of-nov-1-for-illegal-immigrants-to-leave-pakistan ( Accessed on 1. 11.23)
[xvi] “Unexpected objector to Pakistan’s deportation of Afghans”. The Hindustan Times, October 14, 2023. Available at: https://www.hindustantimes.com/ht-insight/international-affairs/unexpected-objector-to-pakistan-s-deportation-of-afghans-objector-101697295099775.html ( Accessed on 1. 11.23)
[xvii] Kabul calls Pakistan’s decision to expel undocumented Afghan national ‘unacceptable’. Dawn, Oct 4, 2023 Available at: https://www.dawn.com/news/1779276( Accessed on 1. 11.23)
[xviii] “Teams formed to identify, locate properties of Afghan nationals”, DAWN, Oct 11, 2023. Available at: https://www.dawn.com/news/1780372
[xxii] “Amnesty International voices concern over Afghan migrants in Pakistan”. The Khaama Press, Oct 3, 2023. Available at: https://www.khaama.com/amnesty-international-voices-concern-over-afghan-migrants-in-pakistan/.
[xxiii] “Pakistan: Afghans Detained, Face Deportation”. Human Rights Watch, Oct 31, 2023. Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2023/10/31/pakistan-afghans-detained-face-deportation
[xxiv] “Unexpected objector to Pakistan’s deportation of Afghans”. The Hindustan Times, October 14, 2023. Available at: https://www.hindustantimes.com/ht-insight/international-affairs/unexpected-objector-to-pakistan-s-deportation-of-afghans-objector-101697295099775.html
[xxv] “Taliban urges Pakistan to grant more time for undocumented Afghans to leave.” Al Jazeera, Nov 2, 2023. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/11/1/taliban-urges-pakistan-to-grant-more-time-for-undocumented-afghans-to-leave (Accessed on 2. 11.23)
[xxvi] Afghans return to Taliban rule as Pakistan moves to expel 1.7 million, Reuters, Op.cit.
[xxix] “Pakistan to open holding centres ahead of Afghan deportations.”Duetsche Welle, Nov 1, 2023. Available at: https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20231031-pakistan-to-open-holding-centres-ahead-of-afghan-deportations
[xxxi] Afghans return to Taliban rule as Pakistan moves to expel 1.7 million, Reuters, Op.cit.
[xxxiii] “Taliban slams Pakistan’s riot order on refugees, calls expulsion ‘inhumane, unfair and barbaric’”, India Narrative, October 5, 2023. Available at: https://www.indianarrative.com/world-news/taliban-slams-pakistans-riot-order-on-refugees-calls-expulsion-inhumane-unfair-and-barbaric-152739.html
[xxxiv] “Taliban Has "Broken Shackles Of Slavery", Says Pak PM Imran Khan.” NDTV World, Aug 16, 2021. Available at: https://www.ndtv.com/world-news/taliban-has-broken-shackles-of-slavery-says-pak-pm-imran-khan-2511573
[xxxv] “Afghan Taliban Chief Deems Cross-Border Attacks on Pakistan Forbidden” VOA, August 6, 2023. Available at: https://www.voanews.com/a/afghan-taliban-chief-deems-cross-border-attacks-on-pakistan-forbidden-/7213760.html
[xxxvi] “Pakistani Officials: Taliban Arrest 200 Anti-Pakistan Militants in Afghanistan.” VOA, August 6, 2023. Available at: https://www.voanews.com/a/taliban-arrest-200-anti-pakistan-militants-in-afghanistan/7286841.html
[xxxvii] “Taliban ends ceasefire with Pakistani government, orders new attacks across country.” PBS News, Nov 28, 2022. Available at: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/world/taliban-ends-ceasefire-with-pakistani-government-orders-new-attacks-across-country
[xxxviii] “Pakistan’s Deadly Air Strikes Inside Afghanistan Increase Tensions With Taliban” RFE, April 21, 2022. Available at: https://www.rferl.org/a/pakistan-air-strikes-afghanistan-taliban-relations/31814993.html (3.11.23)
[xxxix] “Taliban urges Pakistan to grant more time for undocumented Afghans to leave.” Al Jazeera, Nov 2, 2023. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/11/1/taliban-urges-pakistan-to-grant-more-time-for-undocumented-afghans-to-leave (Accessed on 2. 11.23)