Across the Border and beyond Humanity : Pakistan’s deportation of Afghans

Across the Border and beyond Humanity : Pakistan’s deportation of Afghans

The longstanding relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have been marred by historical grievances, geopolitical complexities, and, in recent times, security challenges. The issue of Afghan refugees residing in Pakistan has added another layer to this complex dynamic.

The announcement by the Pakistani interior minister in October 2023, calling for the expulsion of all “undocumented” immigrants by November 1st, has raised concerns, particularly as a significant portion of these migrants are Afghan refugees. This move, while not explicitly targeting Afghans, has sparked a humanitarian crisis as thousands who have lived their entire lives in Pakistan now face forced deportation to precarious conditions.

The origins of the Afghan refugee crisis in Pakistan can be traced back to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1970s and 1980s. As violence and instability engulfed Afghanistan, millions sought refuge in neighbouring Pakistan. The international community, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR),  provided aid and support to the displaced Afghans. However, despite the Soviet withdrawal, the region continued to face turmoil, prompting a second wave of Afghan migration into Pakistan after the United States-led coalition attacks following the 9/11 events. In recent years, the Taliban’s re-assumption of power in Afghanistan in 2021 triggered a fresh wave of displacement, with approximately 80,000 Afghan refugees seeking safety in Pakistan.

The recent announcement by the Pakistani government to expel all “undocumented” immigrants has disproportionately affected Afghans, many of whom have been residing in Pakistan for decades. Among the 1.7 million unregistered migrants facing forced deportation, Afghan families find themselves uprooted from the only home they have known, facing the grim prospect of returning to a country grappling with political instability and economic challenges.

Why is Pakistan deporting migrants?

Officials from Islamabad said this policy is mainly aimed at fighting terrorist activities around the conflict-ridden zones of the Pak-Afghan border, known as the Durrand line. Established in 1893 through the Durand Line Agreement between Mortimer Durand of colonial British India and Amir Abdur Rahman Khan of Afghanistan, the border delineated the boundaries of their respective spheres of influence. Its primary purpose was to define a frontier line, preventing political interference beyond it, thus demarcating the border between Afghanistan and the British Indian Empire at the time. After India’s Independence and the formation of an Independent Pakistan the line became the internationally recognised border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, the Afghan government does not formally accept the Durand line as the international border claiming it was a void from the past, disputes first arose amongst the states over the border’s legitimacy.

The disputed border has also witnessed activities of various extremist groups for decades, one of the groups being Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) or the Pakistani Taliban. Officials have blamed the Afghan nationals for this growing extremist threat and for harbouring militant groups around the border. Pakistan’s Interim Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar in November 2023 said, “ A significant portion of those involved in criminal and terrorist activities are among these illegal immigrants.”

The crisis facing Afghans

While the policy aims to quell insurgent activities, its implementation has led to unintended consequences, particularly a humanitarian crisis affecting thousands of individuals who have never known any home beyond the Durand Line. Deemed “illegal” overnight, these residents are being asked to relocate to unfamiliar territories, leaving them without reassurance or a sense of belonging. The displacement of these individuals raises concerns about basic human rights, as families are forced to abandon their homes, livelihoods, and communities. Many find themselves in alien environments, grappling with uncertainty and a lack of resources. The sudden declaration of their status as “illegal” further compounds the challenges they face, as they navigate an uncertain future without proper documentation or legal recognition. Security forces have undertaken widespread detentions, confiscation of property and livestock, and the destruction of identity documents as part of a concerted effort to forcibly expel thousands of Afghan refugees and asylum seekers. This disturbing trend has been unfolding since mid-September 2023, with Pakistani authorities forcibly displacing over 375,000 Afghans back to their home country. Among these individuals, 20,000 have been subjected to deportation proceedings.

The unfair proceedings and the arrival of tens of thousands of Afghans “couldn’t have come at a worse time”, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees remarked in November, 2023, as winter had already reached its chilly high and the country was facing a severe economic crisis. Deportees are not allowed to carry substantial amounts of money, livestock, or other assets which might result in a situation where nearly all individuals are thrust into poverty upon crossing the border. Deportees recount having to hastily sell their fixed properties and animals at prices below market value while they were hurried across, whilst leaving behind their home of decades. Stripped of their resources and residing in substandard shelters and tents, many will face significant challenges in sustaining themselves, particularly if the winter conditions prove severe. This added complexity in the existing tensions between the two countries is not to be deemed as a mere policy to extract security, which would be blind to the forced expulsion of thousands of lives.

The crisis unfolding on either side of the Durand line have drawn international attention and many governments worldwide have pledged to resettle at-risk Afghans, acknowledging the immediate danger they face. However, the process has been slow and arduous, leaving countless individuals in a precarious situation. The plea to expedite also extends to Pakistan. As a key player in the region, Pakistan is urged to uphold its human rights obligations, ensuring the safety and well-being of Afghan refugees within its borders. to act swiftly.

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