Pakistan's plan to deport Afghans has millions of refugees on edge

The country has hosted millions of its neighbour's citizens since a succession of conflicts began in 1979

Afghan citizens concerned over one-month deadline to leave Pakistan

Afghan citizens concerned over one-month deadline to leave Pakistan
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A deadline for Afghan refugees to leave Pakistan by October 31 has instilled fear among countless millions who have called the country home after fleeing decades of war in their mountainous, poverty-stricken home country.

Interior Minister Sarfaraz Bugti recently announced the decision to deport Afghan refugees, claiming the majority of recent suicide attacks in Pakistan had been committed by their compatriots.

Yaqoob Khan's family has witnessed many ups and downs since his great-grandfather migrated from Afghanistan decades ago.

As is the case with millions of Afghans, his life was turned upside down by war – from the 1979 Soviet invasion, which led to battles between the Afghan Mujahideen and the occupiers, to the civil war that followed and the rise of the Taliban.

Afghans then endured a 20-year war between western armed forces backing the post-2001 Kabul government and the Taliban, which returned to power in 2021.

Mr Khan, 24, owns a shop in Peshawar’s Board Bazaar marketplace, an area known as the “mini-Kabul” of Pakistan because it is home to many Afghan businesses.

Speaking to The National, Mr Khan said he had owned the Board Bazaar shop for the past eight years.

“Right now, I am sitting at this shop but I know the moment I leave this market and go to the main University Road, located a mere two-minute walk away, the police will arrest me,” he said.

“My grandfather Manru Gul, who was also born in Pakistan, told us that decades ago he was offered Pakistan’s national identity card for just Rs2,000 ($7) but he refused, saying his family were refugees and had to leave Pakistan someday.”

Mr Khan's family were repatriated to Afghanistan in 2009 before returning to Pakistan. In 2016, the family moved to Afghanistan only to turn back because of hardship.

“We spent six months in Afghanistan in 2016 but returned to Pakistan. There was no business and our family was starving in Afghanistan,” he said.

He urged the government of Pakistan to give nationality to Afghans who were born in Pakistan and have lived there for decades.

Farhad Ahmed, 20, a banana seller at the market, said his family had lived in Pakistan for about 35 years and no longer had a home in Afghanistan.

“I was born in Peshawar and have a POR [proof of registration] card. I know the ongoing deadline is for unregistered Afghans only but I don’t know for how long we will live as refugees here,” he said.

Muhammad Ahmedzai, president of the Pakistan-Afghan Transporters Association, said Afghans had invested billions of rupees in businesses inside Pakistan and it was not possible to expel them by giving them a short notice of only a month.

“More than 800 big vehicles owned by transporters from my native Logar area in Afghanistan are plying their trade in Pakistan,” he said.

“I appeal to Pakistan to grant registration cards to the unregistered Afghans and let them live and do business in Pakistan.”

UN refugee agency spokesman for Pakistan Qaiser Afridi told The National that a humanitarian crisis would arise if all Afghans were forced to leave by November.

“The Pakistani government has warned of expelling unregistered Afghans. But there are also singers, ex-soldiers and many other [unregistered] Afghans, who fled to Pakistan after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan,” he said.

“They will certainly face threats to their lives if they return to their [war-ravaged] country.”

Rustam Mohmand, a political analyst and Pakistan’s former ambassador to Afghanistan, said Afghans should not be associated with ISIS or Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, the local branch of the extremist movement.

The vast majority of Afghan refugees have lived in Pakistan for decades and have not been involved in terrorism, he said.

“They are asylum seekers and, as per the United Nations rules, they are entitled to stay in a country as refugees,” Mr Mohmand said.

“Also, I don’t think it is the mandate of the caretaker government to decide on the deportation of Afghan refugees. The caretakers are to make arrangements for fair elections only.”

Mr Mohmand said Pakistan, whose relations with India and Iran had already soured, would create further problems for itself in the region with the deportation of Afghans.

“I think it is an injustice to send back the refugees to Afghanistan at a time when their own country has very limited jobs and employment. They would face more problems there,” he said.

Ghulam Ali, the governor of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, a mountainous region bordering Afghanistan, told The National that the decision to deport Afghans had been taken by the federal security establishment and was binding on all provinces.

Responding to a query about the timetable and consequences of the deportation, Mr Ali said discussions were still continuing and a decision would be made regarding which refugees would be given exemptions.

Updated: October 06, 2023, 1:40 PM