By A. Shafaq
There is a complex web of reasons why Pakistan has chosen to deport scores of illegal Afghan refugees from its soil. Even as one tries to understand the reasons for this action, it must be said that this move has been widely condemned worldwide and has put Pakistan’s relationship with Afghanistan at stake. Just how bad relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan are can be adduced from the fact that caretaker Prime Minister Anwar-ul-Kakar recently said during a nationally televised address that Pakistan had experienced a “a 60% increase in terror incidents and a 500% rise in suicide bombings” since the Taliban returned to power in Kabul two years ago, killing nearly 2,300 Pakistanis. This candid confession hides the fact that Pakistan created and nurtured the Taliban all these years and today, things have turned a complete 360 degrees.
Prime Minister Anwar-ul-Haq Kakar demanded (8 November 2023) that the Taliban government extradite fugitive militants who were sheltering in Afghanistan and plotting terrorist attacks against Pakistan. He said his government’s crackdown on deporting all undocumented foreigners, primarily 1.7 million Afghans, to their country of origin stemmed from the sharp increase in nationwide terrorist incidents. He claimed foreigners without legal status were linked to those “fuelling terrorism and instability in Pakistan.” Clearly, Pakistan is using the spate of terrorist attacks by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an organization currently in favor with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, as an excuse to deport all illegal immigrants to Afghanistan.
The acting Prime Minister noted that 15 Afghan nationals were among the suicide bombers killed by security forces in 2023, while a total of 64 Afghans were killed fighting Pakistani security forces. He asserted the bloodshed was being carried out by “Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, terrorists” from their bases in Afghanistan. While Pakistan has been trying to draw the Taliban’s attention to this security aspect, the Afghan government has been irked by Islamabad’s decision to deport all Afghan migrants living in Pakistan and claimed that it was harassing refugees. Kabul has also indicated that Islamabad’s decision may be a pressure tactic on the issue of the banned TTP.
Having initially pursued a hardline policy, Pakistan suddenly announced (Voice of America, 10 November) that it was extending, the legal residence status of about 1.4 million Afghan refugees until year-end, though it again rejected calls to halt deportations of all undocumented Afghans and other foreign nationals. This step was probably taken under international pressure and will be a relief to the refugee community amid a nationwide crackdown on foreigners illegally residing in Pakistan, including an officially estimated 1.7 million Afghans. “The government of Pakistan is pleased to extend the validity of the Proof of Registration, or PoR, cards issued to the registered Afghan refugees … till [31st] December 2023”, according to an official announcement. A spokesperson of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Pakistan welcomed the decision, noting. He said the delay had exposed refugee families to harassment and abuse, particularly after the crackdown was unleashed.
Afghan Refugees Challenges in Pakistan
To contextualise current developments, it is necessary to understand the problem with help of statistics. There are about four types of Afghan refugees. The first category has been in Pakistan since the time of the Soviet invasion. A large number still remain undocumented despite their having lived in Pakistan for at least three generations. The second group got themselves registered in 2007 and got Proof of Residence (PoR) cards, with the help of the UNHCR. The third category comprises people who registered in 2017 through the Afghan Citizen Card (ACC). Those with PoRs and ACC number around 22 lakhs. The fourth category, numbering around seven lakhs came to Pakistan after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in August 2021 (The Week, 5 November 2023). Most of them are in ‘transit’, as they plan to leave for a third country and are spread across cities such as Islamabad, Peshawar, Lahore and Karachi.
Coming to the present, it is seen that in early October 2023, Pakistan had abruptly given all foreigners without legal documents one month to voluntarily return to their countries of origin, saying those who remained beyond the 1 November deadline would be arrested and deported for violating local immigration laws. The registered refugees mainly comprise families that fled decades of conflict and persecution, starting with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the late 1970s. Pakistan would lately renew their PoR cards every six months but did not do so when they expired on 30 June this year, nor did it explain the reasons for the delay in latest statement. Meanwhile, the Taliban government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said (8 November) that Pakistan should stop blaming Afghanistan for its own failures.
Afghanistan-Pakistan Tension: Deportation Dilema
Pakistan has in the past, provided active support to the Taliban and their terror activities but tensions are high now as Pakistan is attempting to expel hundreds of thousands of undocumented Afghans from the country. Pakistan has accused the Taliban regime of ‘non-cooperation’ in the matter and recent remarks of caretaker Prime Minister Anwar-ul-Haq Kakar have drawn a strong reaction from the Afghan Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, who in a recent video message, asked Pakistan not to punish Afghan refugees if it had any issue with the Kabul administration. Haqqani termed Pakistani decision as un-Islamic, claiming that Islamabad could not blame Afghanistan for its own problems.
Prior to PM Kakar’s televised address, Pakistan had denied any link between the deportations and TTP terrorism within Pakistan. One government official told the Express Tribune that “I can tell you with full authority that this has no linkages with the TTP issue.” The official added “There is a perception that our decision is to put pressure on the Afghan government. That’s not true”. The official added that the decision to send back all foreigners residing in the country illegally was taken six months ago. PM Kakar said (8 November) that “Those Afghans who have voluntarily returned from Pakistan, their count stands at 252,000”. The latest move by Pakistan to repatriate Afghans having no refugee status or visa has further compounded the bilateral relationship. Pakistan clarified that it was not bothering those who have PoR or ACC. Pakistan expects the process of repatriation of as estimated 1.7 million illegal Afghan migrants will be completed in a year.
Pakistan is thus using the alleged support given by the Afghan Taliban to the TTP to claim that it is the Taliban that is sponsoring terrorism. This is to by-pass continued allegations of the ISI’s sustained global campaign to sponsor and arm terrorist groups across the region. The campaign to deport illegal migrants may have a genuine issue both in economic and political terms, but by admitting its direct linkage to the TTP’s terrorist attacks in Pakistan, Islamabad is trying to connect two unrelated matters, mostly for domestic consumption. Of greater concern immediately resulting from enhanced Pakistan-Afghanistan tensions, is the possibility of some sort of armed conflict between the two nations. This would help the Pakistani military build their image as the savior of Pakistan!
- Shafaq (pseudonym) is a researcher and lecturer at one of the private universities in Kabul.
Note: The contents of the article are of sole responsibility of the author. Afghan Diaspora Network will not be responsible for any inaccurate or incorrect statement in the articles.