Pakistan has issued a final warning to all illegal immigrants to leave the country voluntarily before a November 1 deadline. In its latest step to implement the planned expulsion of all undocumented migrants, including 1.7 million Afghans, Pakistan is setting up deportation centres where people will be held during processing.
Jan Achakzai, a spokesman for the southwestern Baluchistan government, said on Thursday that three deportation centres are being set up, including one in Quetta, the provincial capital, according to Al Jazeera.
Officials said illegal immigrants, many of whom have lived in Pakistan for years, who are willing to leave voluntarily will be helped to leave the country. But they warned anyone found in the country illegally after next Wednesday would be arrested.
Pakistan has been a host to millions of Afghan refugees who sought refuge in the country during the period of the Soviet occupation from 1979 to 1989. The situation escalated with a significant influx of Afghan refugees following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021.
The Pakistani government has stated that the approximately 1.4 million Afghans who are officially registered as refugees in the country should not be concerned about their status. They assert that their actions are not targeted specifically at Afghans but rather focused on individuals residing in the country illegally, regardless of their nationality.
The decision by the Pakistani government to take this stance comes as a response to instances where Afghan nationals have been implicated in criminal activities, smuggling operations, and attacks against the government and the military. This includes their involvement in a significant proportion of the 24 suicide bombings that have occurred this year.
The crackdown on Afghan immigrants in Pakistan has received widespread condemnation. Recently, a coalition of former US diplomats and representatives from resettlement organizations came together to urge Pakistan to refrain from deporting Afghans who are awaiting US visas under a program designed to resettle vulnerable refugees fleeing the rule of the Taliban.
Furthermore, the United Nations has issued a similar appeal, expressing concerns that the crackdown could lead to violations of human rights, including the separation of families, thereby emphasizing the need for a more compassionate and just approach to this complex situation.
However, Pakistan denies targeting Afghans and says the focus is on people who are in the country illegally, regardless of their nationality.
The problem, at least partially, is that thousands of Afghan applicants have been waiting for more than two years for U.S. officials to process their visa applications. This delay has left Afghan applicants in a highly vulnerable position as they contend with economic hardship and lack of access to health, education and other services in Pakistan, according to the Seattle Times.
Now, they face imminent expulsion.
The UNHCR reported in October 2023 that there were approximately 3.7 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, including 700,000 who had fled after the Taliban’s takeover in August 2021. Many of these recent arrivals sought resettlement in countries like the United States, Canada, and Germany. While 200,000 have been resettled, many others are still in uncertain situations. Afghan women and girls have faced challenges in obtaining asylum, with many destination countries prioritizing assistance to Afghan men who contributed to their military efforts.
In 2005, Afghan refugees in Pakistan were registered and issued proof-of-registration cards, which confirmed their refugee status. However, these registrations stopped in 2007, leaving many Afghans without a means to seek protection in Pakistan. UNHCR has issued advisories against forced returns of Afghan nationals in 2021, 2022, and 2023, warning of potential rights violations.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on the UN and international donors to pressure Pakistan to protect Afghan asylum seekers, urging expedited refugee registration and assessments consistent with international law. Mass deportations could breach Pakistan’s obligations under international law.
In 2016, Pakistan coerced registered Afghan refugees into returning to Afghanistan, despite claiming the returns were voluntary. HRW documented abuses during this process. The threat of forced returns from Pakistan is concerning given the deteriorating human rights situation in Afghanistan under the Taliban, particularly impacting women and girls. Afghanistan is also facing a severe economic and humanitarian crisis.
HRW called on the Pakistani government to avoid recreating conditions that pressured Afghan refugees to leave in 2016, urging an end to police abuses and deportation threats and the resumption of Afghan asylum seeker registrations.
HRW also emphasized the importance of countries fulfilling their promises to provide resettlement opportunities to at-risk Afghans, highlighting the shortfall in the numbers pledged by countries such as Germany, the US, UK, Canada, and others.