Locals call the line that separates Afghanistan and Pakistan in the mountain town of Torkham the “zero point”. The road traversing it narrows into two lanes, the southbound one operating business as usual for a border crossing, with a queue of lorries hauling sacks of talc.
But the northbound lane, heading into Afghanistan, bears all the signs of a humanitarian disaster unfolding.
At the start of October, Pakistan’s caretaker government announced all undocumented foreigners, including 1.7 million Afghans, would have to leave by November 1. The deadline was missed, but Pakistani authorities have said they are determined to press on with the expulsion – including by force where necessary.
Afghan border guards told The National the number of returnees who had passed through in the preceding 24 hours to be greater than 16,000. Before the expulsion announcement, they said the crossing handled 300 people per day.
At a registration desk just 50 metres from the zero point, a unit of about a dozen Afghan soldiers struggled to maintain order among several hundred returnees. One soldier told The National his shift at this registration area began at 5am and would only finish “when the crowd is clear”.
The refugee camp hosting arrivals without anywhere to go is a sprawling, improvised settlement in a dusty valley a few kilometres away from the border post, with nearly 30,000 residents.
At the edge of the camp, six returnee children play cricket in the sand, speaking to one another in Punjabi, a language not spoken in Afghanistan. All but two were born and brought up in Pakistan.
One of the returnees, Niaz Mohammad, 34, told The National from his seat aboard a bus sent by the Afghan Ministry of Defence that though he left Pakistan “voluntarily”, he felt he had no other choice as Pakistan’s crackdown on undocumented residents like him left him suddenly unable to find work.
Another man who had crossed earlier that day had a valid Pakistani residency card, seen by The National, but his other family members are undocumented.
“After the [Pakistani government’s] announcement, we were evicted by our landlord and no one else would rent us a house because my family doesn’t have documents,” he said.
Pakistan has set up deportation centres to hold and process those slated for expulsion. There are reports of Afghans being rounded up in Pakistani cities. Islamabad’s acting interior minister, Sarfraz Bugti, has warned that any Pakistani citizens found to be sheltering undocumented foreigners would face prosecution.
The caretaker government in Afghanistan, administered by the Taliban, is scrambling to stage a humanitarian response befitting the arrival of up to 1.7 million people, many of whom would have never lived in the country, let alone under its new rulers.
Mr Bugti said last month that deportees would not be allowed to take more than $180 out of the country.
As a result, many of the arrivals need financial assistance, Arafat Muhajir, an official from the local office of information and culture on the Afghan side of Torkham, told The National.
“The Afghan Ministry of Transportation,” Mr Muhajir said, “gives small amounts – up to 4,000 afghanis ($53) per family – to help them travel onwards to other cities.”
Some of the returnees who say they have valid documents and should not have been expelled are directed to a repurposed shipping container, where a local NGO interviews them and reports their cases to the UN. Case-workers at the NGO, who have requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of their work, told The National on November 3 they interviewed 60 returnees that morning who had asylum seeker certificates issued by UNHCR.
One man showed The National a copy of a certificate issued in November 2021, when he fled to Pakistan shortly after the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. He was applying on the basis of that certificate for asylum in a third country – one whose embassy in Afghanistan is now closed. The UNHCR asylum certificate says the man should “be protected from forcible return to a country where he claims to face threats to his life or freedom”. Nonetheless, he was arrested by Pakistani authorities and returned to Afghanistan.
The NGO workers told The National that they had interviewed 64 returnees who showed them digital photographs of valid Pakistani residency cards, claiming that Pakistani officers tore them up when they were arrested. The National was unable to verify these claims as it could not see the photos
Hundreds of tents have been supplied by China’s aid agency, but most of the returnees sleep rough, or in the backs of lorries. Red Crescent vehicles make rounds, treating any ill or injured. A military pickup truck moves slowly through the crowds – standing on top of it are Afghan soldiers holding children they found walking alone. A loud voice on the truck’s loudspeaker calls out names and descriptions of the children, hoping to reunite them with their families.
At a pair of tents set up by Taliban authorities, civil servants collect information and take biometrics from exhausted returnees. A single-file queue of several thousand people snakes from the registration tents across much of the camp.
By the side of one of the tents, an official from the Ministry of Interior, surrounded by soldiers, is trying to calm a crowd of elderly men – the heads of their households – who are demanding an explanation for how long they are expected to stay in this place.
The official, Sultan Mohammad Mufaqir, said he hopes help comes from the international community soon.
In a queue for food rations, a man reaches the front and is given a packet of biscuits and turns to The National’s reporter incredulously.
“So, this is the what help from the Emirate looks like,” he says, referring to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the official title of the Taliban-run administration.
On the morning of Friday, November 3, the Taliban administration’s acting prime minister, Mohammad Hassan Akhundzada, addressed Afghans in a nationally televised speech, in which he, too, expressed anger at treatment of deportees.
“Every government has the right to decide policy, but not policies that will ultimately harm themselves and those around them,” he said.
“Expelling Afghans is one thing, but what gives Pakistan the right to loot them on the way out?” he asked.
In the afternoon, mosques in villages and cities close to the Torkham border delivered sermons on loudspeakers, the sound filling the streets outside, extolling the virtues of helping migrants.
Thirty kilometres from Torkham, in Mar Koh, the road leading through the town in the direction of Jalalabad is lined with residents who have gathered to welcome the returnees back – or in some cases for the first time – to Afghanistan.
They are cheering and waving. Sitting on top of an inbound lorry is a returnee family, whose young children wave back at the residents of Mar Koh, appearing mildly surprised.
For them, the ordeal is almost over. For hundreds of thousands more, a long wait lies ahead.