Why is Pakistan planning to deport undocumented Afghans?

The Afghan government has called Pakistan’s decision to expel Afghans living in the country without approval ‘unacceptable’.

An Afghan refugee girl sits with classmates at an open-air class at a UNESCO-sponsored school on the outskirts of Pakistan capital Islamabad.
The Pakistani government’s planned crackdown on undocumented immigrants makes the future of an estimated 1.7 million Afghans in Pakistan uncertain [File: Claro Cortes IV/Reuters]

Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistan’s government has announced that all undocumented migrants and refugees must leave Pakistan by the beginning of next month, either voluntarily or by force.

Hundreds of thousands of them are Afghans. Citing a rising number of violent attacks, caretaker Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti said on Tuesday that “14 out of 24” suicide bombings this year were carried out by Afghan nationals.

“We have given them a deadline of November 1,” Bugti said, adding that nearly 4.4 million Afghan refugees live in the country – more than 1.7 million illegally.

Here’s what you need to know about the government’s decision:

Why is the government doing this?

Pakistan has seen a dramatic surge in violence this year with the majority of attacks occurring in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the southwestern province of Balochistan, both of which border Afghanistan.

The government has repeatedly alleged that the Afghan Taliban is giving safe harbour to fighters belonging to the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which is ideologically aligned with the Afghan Taliban.

Since the TTP’s decision to renege on a peace accord with the Pakistani government in November, the group has launched more than 300 attacks in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province alone this year.

The frequency and intensity of the attacks have been increasing. The two latest attacks in Balochistan’s Mastung city and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Hangu city last month killed more than 60 people and wounded dozens.

Kabul, for its part, has denied the allegations, saying security concerns in Pakistan have nothing to do with Afghans.

How has Afghanistan responded to the decision?

The interim Afghan government led by the Taliban gave a stinging rebuke of Pakistan’s announcement, calling it “unacceptable”.

Government spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid on Wednesday responded to Bugti’s remarks, urging the Pakistani government to “reconsider the decision“.

Afghan refugees are not involved in Pakistan’s security problems, he said on X, formerly known as Twitter, adding that Pakistan “should tolerate them”.

Pakistan sent a high-level delegation to Kabul for negotiations, the second such visit this year, and urged the Afghan Taliban to improve border controls.

The two countries share a 2,640km-long (1,640-mile-long) border. It passes through rugged mountains, densely forested valleys and narrow rock passages. Its topography makes it porous and difficult to control.

Is this the first time Pakistan has done this?

Pakistan has conducted similar operations in the past, albeit with limited success.

During a 2016 campaign, more than 600,000 Afghan immigrants, both registered and undocumented, returned to their country, according to data compiled by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

A Human Rights Watch report from 2017 called it the “world’s largest unlawful mass forced return of refugees in recent times”.

That year saw the exodus of 150,000 Afghans while in 2018, after at least six extensions to a deadline to leave the country, almost 50,000 Afghan citizens, both registered and undocumented, were expelled, according to the UNHCR.

At that time, Islamabad made similar allegations that TTP fighters were using Afghan soil to launch attacks in Pakistan, and it carried out campaigns to expel immigrants, citing security concerns.

How many refugees live in Pakistan and where are they based?

According to estimates, more than 95 percent of refugees in Pakistan, both documented and undocumented, are Afghan nationals.

The first influx of refugees began after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, which resulted in more than three million Afghans fleeing to Pakistan. Over the years, many of them returned home.

This wave was followed by a second in 2001 when the United States invaded Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks.

The UNHCR says 1.3 million Afghan refugees live in Pakistan, 50 percent of whom are in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and 24 percent in Balochistan.

A report released in July by Refugees International, an independent humanitarian group that advocates for displaced people, said that since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in 2021, more than 600,000 Afghans have fled to Pakistan.

How will the Pakistan government expel those who don’t leave?

The government has not disclosed any plans about how it intends to deport undocumented people.

The task to identify them has been given to the Ministry of Interior Affairs, and regional police and the Federal Investigation Agency are to carry out the deportations.

Authorities have said a task force will be created to initiate the crackdown after the November 1 deadline, and those Afghans who do not have documentation will be handed over to Afghan officials unless they are wanted by authorities for suspected criminal activities.

Source: Al Jazeera