While global attention is focused on the War in the Middle East, Pakistan’s caretaker government is forcefully pushing nearly 1.7 million Afghan refugees into Afghanistan. In the first week of October 2023, Pakistan decided to repatriate those residing illegally in the country. They were given until October 31 to leave the country voluntarily, and it was clearly stated that those who did not comply would be arrested and forcibly sent back. Following this announcement, over 370,000 Afghans have fled Pakistan1 voluntarily; those who could not are living in constant fear of getting arrested and forcefully repatriated.
Following the official deadline for leaving the country on 1 November, law enforcement agencies initiated the process of identifying individuals who were unable to leave on their own and relocating them to designated camps established specifically for this purpose in the border areas. The Pakistani authorities have limited the amount of money, jewellery, and livestock that returnees. They are allowed to carry only 50000 Pakistani Rupees (approximately $170). 2
Pakistani police are facing accusations of unlawfully detaining, beating, extorting and sexually harassing Afghan refugees as part of a coercive campaign aimed at compelling them to return to their home country. Reports suggest that the police and security authorities are committing sexual assaults against Afghan women and girls in the name of daily night raids as an intimidation tactic.3 Many, including the current Taliban-led Afghan government, international organisations like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Amnesty International, and certain segments of Pakistani society are criticising the forced repatriation of Afghan migrants.
It should be noted that Pakistani authorities are not deporting any Afghan migrants who are registered with the UNHCR and other agencies in Pakistan. Additionally, those Afghan migrants who are awaiting repatriation to the United States or England in Pakistan are exempted from this policy.
Pakistan’s rationale behind this human-made disaster
In recent years Pakistan witnessed a sudden hike in terror-related activities. Interim Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, speaking to reporters said that during the last two years when Afghan Taliban returned to power, terrorist attacks have increased by 60 percent while suicide attacks increased by 500 percent in Pakistan.4
Pakistan recorded the second largest increase in terrorism-related deaths worldwide in 2022, with the toll rising significantly to 643, a 120 percent rise from 292 deaths the previous year, a new report said.5 The majority of these deaths were attributed to Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA). The terror attacks, however, are mainly concentrated but not limited to areas bordering Pakistan with Afghanistan. According to the Global Terrorism Index report, 63 percent of attacks and 74 percent of deaths occur in that area.
The decision to expel Afghan refugees is the result of a growing belief in Pakistan that the growing terrorism in the country is linked to the Afghan refugees, which may not be borne out by evidence and stray cases cannot be generalised to build such an argument based in which a decision should be taken to flush all refugees out. Nevertheless, the government of Pakistan and the security establishment allege that terrorists entering Pakistan from Afghanistan easily blend with Afghan refugees or local communities and use some of them or their networks to accomplish their terror, drugs, and other illegal activities in the country. Pakistani authorities believe that controlling the influx of unauthorised Afghans will help curb extremism and terrorism in Pakistan. This policy also reflects the frustration of Pakistani leaders against the Kabul government, which they believe allows the TTP and some other extremist groups to operate freely in Afghanistan. It is here that these groups plan and carry out terror activities in various Pakistani cities.
Reaction of Taliban-led Afghan Government
The Afghan Taliban in Kabul have said that the Afghan territory is not being used by such groups that are carrying out terror attacks in Pakistan. Zabiullah Mujahid, spokesperson for the Afghan government stated that the issue of violence within Pakistan is Pakistan's internal matter, and rather than blaming Afghanistan, the Pakistani government should focus on addressing its internal matters on its own and not blame Afghanistan for its failure.6
The Taliban-led Afghan government has requested Pakistan not to push Afghan refugees hastily. Additionally, they have urged Islamabad to come out with a proper plan to allow the repatriation of refugees to Afghanistan in a systematic phase-wise order. They also demanded compensation for the financial loss to the refugees due to the confiscation of their properties and assets by the Pakistani authorities.7 However, Pakistan has not paid heed to any of these requests from Afghanistan.
Afghanistan which was already facing severe economic hardship has collapsed completely by the recent earthquakes. The Taliban-led Afghan government has shown a complete inability to accommodate this huge number of returnees. They are pleading with international agencies and organisations to assist them in the rehabilitation of these returnees. So far international agencies have not shown much interest in this due to the international sanctions on the Taliban government.
The implication of this humanitarian catastrophe for the region
The hasty, short-sighted, and reactionary step taken by Pakistan has caused a huge humanitarian crisis. The piling up of expelled Afghan refugees in the makeshift camps at the Afghan-Pakistan border especially when the winter is approaching, is a great humanitarian concern. It is worrying to see these Afghan refugees who were once seen as a responsibility of the Islamic Ummah (Islamic Nation) and also a source of millions of dollars in foreign aid by the Pakistani establishment are now pushed into Afghanistan which is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis due to international sanctions, economic crisis and natural calamities.
The failure of the Taliban government in Afghanistan to provide required assistance to these returnees which is very likely to complicate the issue, lead to inflaming of passions and put the security of the region at great risk. Even after the assumption of the Taliban into power in Kabul, terror activities have not stopped in the country. There are high chances of many of the poor and helpless refugees falling prey to groups like the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISK-P) or recruited by the TTP which could further destabilise the region.
The Pakistani establishment should understand that the birth of the Afghan Taliban, the TTP and other terror groups active in the region is the byproduct of Pakistan’s short-term tactical approach, without evaluating the long-term consequences for the region or its stability. For decades the Pakistani establishment has been using terrorism as a state policy to advance its agenda in the region. How successful it has been is a different debate altogether.
The TTP was born out of the womb of the Pakistani experiment that backed Afghan Taliban for decades as part of its so-called policy of ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan. It even welcomed the return of the Taliban to Kabul wholeheartedly as a dividend for long-term covert and overt investment in this group, which Islamabad thought could be used as leverage against anything which deals with Afghanistan or the “Af-Pak” bordering region. But it turned out to be the exact opposite. The TTP became more emboldened and started inflicting more damage on Pakistan after Taliban assumed power in Kabul.
One fails to understand that instead of accepting its failure to curb the TTP, the Pakistani establishment is resorting to a medieval-style collective punishment as a policy which is unfortunate. The international community should take note of this brewing humanitarian disaster in the region and force Pakistan to stop this madness. The least they can do is to assist those returning by providing makeshift accommodation and food so that they can go back to their homeland in dignity without getting harassed by Pakistani police or state officials.
Another important thing that international organisations should consider is that there is a considerable number of population of Afghan refugees who have recently fled Afghanistan due to the fear of the Taliban's return to power. If they are forced to return, it will put their lives in danger due to their prior association with the previous regime or individuals.
If the issue is left to itself and the refugee situation continues like this there is a risk that the ongoing crisis may turn into a big humanitarian catastrophe for the region and beyond.
Afroz Khan is a Research Analyst at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi, and working in a project on Pakistan. The views expressed here are his own.