Mass deportations of Afghans from Pakistan strain bilateral relations

Mass deportations of Afghans from Pakistan strain bilateral relations
Pakistan has reportedly sped up the deportations, opening more border crossings to facilitate the process. / bne IntelliNews
By bne IntelliNews November 7, 2023

More than 160,000 undocumented Afghans have been forcibly deported from Pakistan after authorities decided to rid the country of millions sheltering there following the Taliban’s takeover two years ago.

The expulsion comes on top of a similar attempt to expel of hundreds of Afghans living in Iran because of security concerns.

According to Pakistan’s interior department in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, a total of 160,638 undocumented Afghans have been sent home as of November 3, the Pakistan Observer reports.

Pakistan started to arrest undocumented Afghans after a November 1 deadline, as part of a nationwide crackdown on “illegal” migrants. Authorities claim the refugees have been involved in Islamist militant attacks and crimes that undermined the security of Pakistan.

The Pakhtunkhwa interior department said the tally includes 44,718 men, 33,699 women, and 82,221 children, and that the expulsion process was ongoing. Pakistan has reportedly sped up the deportations, opening more border crossings to facilitate the process.

Around 200,000 Afghan nationals left Pakistan ahead of the deadline voluntarily, according to the Pakistani government. Pakistan is home to over 4mn Afghan migrants and refugees, about 1.7mn of whom are undocumented.

The head of the Ministry of Defence of the Taliban government slammed Pakistan’s treatment of Afghan migrants, warning Islamabad of “consequences” unless the decision is reversed, Khaama Press reported.

Islamabad will “pay the price for this man-made crisis", Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob Mujahid was quoted as saying as he called on Islamabad to cease harassment, mistreatment, and confiscation of Afghan migrants’ property in Pakistan, saying the Pakistani action has no legal basis.

The Afghan embassy in Islamabad stated on November 2 that the interim interior minister of Pakistan has promised to announce a mechanism soon regarding the cash and non-cash assets of Afghan immigrants.

The situation at the borders is straining already tense relations between isolated Afghanistan and crisis-plagued, cash-strapped Pakistan, which is preparing for an election in February, Nikkei Asia wrote, noting that Islamabad blames the Taliban for not curbing militants allegedly operating from Afghan territory, and has claimed that Afghans inside its borders are contributing to a surge in terrorism.

Pakistan's interim Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti last month alleged that 14 out of two dozen suicide bombings in Pakistan this year were carried out by Afghan nationals – a narrative the Afghan Taliban rejects.

Human rights group voice concern

Human rights groups have criticised the deportation policy Pakistan calls the “Illegal Foreigners Repatriation Plan”.

“Afghanistan is deep in the grips of a humanitarian crisis, with ongoing human rights challenges and an impending harsh winter,” reads a joint UNHCR/IOM /UNICEF press release.

Addressing the same issue, Nadia Rahman, Amnesty International’s interim deputy regional director for research in South Asia, said: “Afghans in Pakistan are fleeing persecution by the Taliban. They are living incredibly precarious lives where they are either having to undergo arduous processes for registering as refugees in Pakistan; or are stuck in lengthy processes waiting to obtain relocation to another country. A forced return to Afghanistan could put them at grave risk.”

Some of the refugees previously worked for Western governments under the US-backed administration. These refugees fear persecution by the Taliban if they return to Afghanistan. While some of these workers have been transported to western countries, the vast majority fled the country following the Taliban’s takeover. The US said last week that it believes some 25,000 Afghans are eligible for resettlement in the US, but has not expedited the process of issuing visas.

Human Rights Watch has cautioned that Afghans awaiting resettlement to nations including the US, UK, Germany, and Canada are in jeopardy of deportation after their Pakistani visas lapsed following their flight from the Taliban regime.

Western countries are still resettling Afghan refugees following the Taliban’s resurgence two years ago, leaving numerous families in a state of limbo in Pakistan, unsure if they will ever be issued visas.

“The Embassy of America is sponsoring 1,150 Afghan nationals for relocation to the United States,” stated a letter from Pakistan’s interior ministry, dated November 2, reported AFP.

Meanwhile, Canada’s Immigration Minister Marc Miller said on October 30 that Canada has accepted at least 40,000 Afghan refugees who fled the Taliban takeover of their homeland since 2021.

"The horrors faced in Afghanistan at the hands of the Taliban are ongoing, and the impacts to the rights and freedoms of the Afghan people, specifically women and girls, knows no bounds," Miller was quoted as saying by VOA.

Iran also moves to expel Afghans

The developments in Pakistan come on top of an order by Tehran to also expel Afghans. Iran last week announced that “unauthorised Afghan immigrants” will be deported from the country.

“Illegal immigrants must leave the country”, Iranian Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi was quoted as saying in October 25, highlighting the need for a judicial mechanism to bring prosecution against the deportees who return to Iran through its porous borders with Afghanistan.

“Several thousand illegal immigrants are now in [Iranian] prisons, but that doesn’t mean we should promote anti-Afghan sentiment,” he said.

There are a total of 8mn Afghans living in Iran, according to media reports, of which 750,000 are refugees, according to the latest UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) numbers. According to earlier UN statements, up to 1.5mn Afghans may have fled to Iran following the Taliban takeover through the porous borders.

In 2023, Iran officially became the second-largest refugee-hosting country in the world, with a population of at least 3.4mn refugees and individuals in a refugee-like situation, according to UNHCR.

Vahidi later told ISNA in an interview that under a plan for organising foreign nationals, refugees are prohibited from residing in certain places for security reasons, adding that removal programmes are now underway.

His remarks were in response to a question about Shah-Cheragh Shrine in Shiraz, which came under terrorist attacks twice in less than a year. However, in that case, the attacker was from Tajikistan and not Afghanistan.

Following the second attack, residents of areas around the shrine were banned from renting out their properties to foreigners.

A local newspaper in Iran warned of potential Taliban threats against Iran’s security with the ongoing outflow of Afghans from Pakistan.

“Experts on Afghan affairs suggest that the Taliban, who have been expelled from Pakistan, might be moving towards Iran and entering Iran from the southeast borders. Pakistani military personnel started transferring millions of Taliban members, whom they referred to as 'intruders', from Pakistan to Afghanistan starting from November 1. Experts believe that this could potentially lead to a new incursion from the Pashtun Taliban into Iran, bringing along new risks and threats,” the Jomhuri-Eslami daily wrote.




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