Undocumented Afghans face uncertain future as they are forced to leave Pakistan

Only a fraction had returned home before Islamabad's November 1 deadline for all foreigners illegally in the country

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About 200,000 out of an estimated 1.7 million undocumented Afghan migrants in Pakistan have complied with an order to return home by November 1, the Pakistani Interior Minister has said.

People who miss the deadline will be placed in “holding centres” before eventually being taken to the closest Afghan border for repatriation, Sarfaraz Bugti told reporters in Islamabad on Monday.

Mr Bugti said law enforcement agencies would start removing “illegal immigrants who have … no justification” to stay after Tuesday. Women, children and the elderly would be treated “respectfully”, he said.

All undocumented foreigners were ordered earlier this month to leave by the end of October. Afghan migrants and refugees make up the largest group but only 2.2 million of the four million foreigners in the country hold some form of documentation.

Many came after the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan in August 2021. However, a large number have been in Pakistan since the 1979 Soviet invasion.

The expulsion order came after a series of suicide bombings that the Pakistani government said involved Afghans, without offering evidence.

Islamabad has also blamed them for other militant attacks, as well involvement in crimes such as smuggling and extortion.

The order has left undocumented Afghans facing an uncertain future as they leave behind jobs and homes to return to a country with limited resources that are stretched by international sanctions on the banking sector and cuts in foreign aid following the Taliban takeover.

Muhammad Essa, 25, used to work for the US Institute of Peace, a non-government organisation in Afghanistan, before the Taliban toppled the western-backed government, prompting him to come to Pakistan on a tourist visa.

“I remember several other workers of various NGOs also fled the country when the government of President Ashraf Ghani came to an end,” he said, speaking to The National on the Pakistani side of the Torkham border crossing.

“I once visited the Pakistani embassy in Kabul for an extension of my visa but I was attacked by unidentified gunmen, leading to my hospitalisation.”

Mr Essa, who is from Afghanistan's Nangarhar province, returned to Pakistan after recovering and renewing his visa.

Some of his family members have already moved on to other countries, including Iran.

Shakir Ullah, 30, who was waiting at the border with his children and other relatives, said he came to Pakistan four years ago to be able to support his family.

“There is now peace in Afghanistan under the Taliban rule, but there is also a scarcity of jobs and employment. But what can we do? We have to move to Afghanistan now due to Pakistan’s deadline,” he said.

Rahim Ullah, 33, who also came to Pakistan in search of work six years ago, said he was worried about getting treatment for his son after returning to Afghanistan.

“My son sustained a serious injury in an accident and is currently under the care of a doctor in Pakistan. The doctor told me he would examine my son again after a fortnight, but I will no longer be able to treat my child,” he said.

“At least the government of Pakistan should have given relaxation for the deportation of Afghans. How can they expect us to relocate on such short notice?”

Jumma Gul, an 18-year-old accompanied by 14 relatives, said his family had lived in Pakistan for the past 40 years.

“Our ancestors hailed from Takhar area in Afghanistan but now we don’t own any property or home there,” Mr Gul said.

“We lived in the Gujrat district of Pakistan for decades, while running a junk shop. Now, when we are leaving Pakistan, we had to borrow 500,000 rupees [$1,803] from locals because we did not have money to travel to Afghanistan. The authorities should provide financial assistance to Afghans leaving Pakistan.”

Abdul Wali, 43, is not afraid of returning to his native country but said that the only problem was the lack of housing and amenities.

“I spent years in the Punjab province of Pakistan and now we are on our way to our native Kunar province in Afghanistan. However, our ancestral home in Kunar is small while our population has increased so much that the small house is insufficient there,” he said.

Attaullah Khan, another returnee, said his family had been closely associated with former Afghan president Hamid Karzai and would now face threats under the Taliban government.

“Before the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan established [their] government, I had campaigned for former Afghan president Hamid Karzai during elections there. Even my brother was shot dead there. Now, I badly need permission to stay in Pakistan or in any other country, but not Afghanistan,” he said.

Rustam Shah Mohmand, a former Pakistani former ambassador to Afghanistan, said that the majority of Afghan refugees who lived in Pakistan for decades had not been involved in acts of terrorism.

“At a time when Afghanistan has very limited jobs, I think it is an injustice to the refugees [to] send [them] back,” he said.

“There are very limited employment opportunities and the presence of armed groups in Afghanistan. Mass repatriation without adequate employment and amenities might exacerbate the situation.”

A Pakistan government official in the area said transit camps had been set up near the Torkham and Chaman border crossings.

The camps were vacant at as they were intended to house migrants detained after the departure deadline expired.

Updated: November 15, 2023, 11:21 AM