On November 1, the Pakistan government expelled millions of undocumented Afghans. It is one of the greatest mass deportations of the 21st century—and is a devastating blow to the refugees—many of whom are children born in the country.
Researched by: Rachel John & Aarthi Ramnath
First, tell me what’s happening…
About the Afghan refugees: There are 4.4 million Afghan nationals living in Pakistan. Of these, 1.4 million are registered as refugees—and another 888,000 have legal status required to stay in the country. A great number of them have been in the country since 1979—when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. There are up to 1.7 million without visas or registrations—nearly half of them (600,000) fled to Pakistan after the Taliban returned in 2021.
The deportation order: In early October, the government announced the Illegal Foreigners Repatriation Plan. It ordered all undocumented migrants to leave the country—or face deportation. They were given a deadline of November 1—a mere 28-day window. The worst hit, of course, are the 1.7 million undocumented Afghans. The announcement followed months of police harassment of Afghan nationals—even those who had legal status.
Pakistan’s interim interior minister Sarfaraz Bugti said “There will be no compromise against illegal refugees... We are going door to door, and we have done geofencing. We will detain and deport them.” But Afghans were already being harassed in the lead up to the announcement:
“We have had more than a thousand cases of documented Afghan refugees who are labourers arrested by the police in [the last] month or so to extract bribes,” said [lawyer Moniza] Kakar. The crackdown against Afghan refugees has been going on since the early months of this year. After the government’s announcement, there has been an uptick in detentions. Reportedly, landlords in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, have received notices instructing them to evict “illegal Afghans” by the end of the month or face consequences.
Also this: Pakistan has set up “holding centres” in all of the four provinces to detain “illegal” migrants who do not leave by the deadline.
The exodus: Faced with these threats, nearly 100,000 migrants left the country before the deadline. A total of over 200,000 have gone back as of November 6. The scenes on the border are dire and chaotic:
There are long queues as people wait to be processed by Pakistani authorities—without any shelters. As one refugee put it:
We are sitting here out in the open with no shelter, no place to go for a washroom, no place to sit properly. First, they want to throw us out of the country, and then they don’t even fulfil promises of giving us a dignified exit.
The situation on the other side of the border isn’t any better. The Taliban have set up camps for people to stay in while they wait to be moved to their place of origin. But there are no proper shelters, limited drinking water, no lighting or toilets.
Also this: 60% of these refugees stranded on the border are children. An International Rescue Committee coordinator says:
Our health team has treated many people, including children, for severe injuries sustained on the long and arduous journey through the mountains to Afghanistan. As winter approaches, the IRC is profoundly fearful for the survival of people who are sleeping in tents or under open skies, as the temperatures are continuing to drop and heavy rains are expected to start in mid-December.
As more refugees pour into the Afghan border, it is likely that they will be stranded there in the punishing winter months.
A life sentence in Afghanistan: The real punishment, however, is being sentenced to life in a postwar Afghanistan. And this is why:
- 90% of the population is facing extreme hunger.
- Nearly 30 million people already depend on aid handouts.
- 3.3 million have lost their homes—in many cases due to the terrible earthquake in October.
- The Afghan economy—propped up by the US—has been devastated by the return of the Taliban.
- Prospects of earning any kind of livelihood are low due to spiking unemployment rates.
- And of course, women and girls will no longer have the right to work or get an education.
All this made more hellish by the weather: “Making matters worse, a brutal winter is awaiting those forced to return. Most of them have no jobs or shelter lined up, sparking a deadly race: Soon, entire villages will be shut off by mountains of snow and ice in certain sections of the country.”
Why would Pakistan do this?
When making the announcement, the Interior Minister blamed the refugees for the escalation of terrorist attacks in the country: “We are attacked from within Afghanistan and Afghan nationals are involved in attacks on us. We have evidence.” But the roots of this crisis lie in Pakistan’s long and twisted history with Afghanistan.
The border dispute: Soon after independence, Pakistan and its neighbour became involved in a fierce battle over the Durand Line—which separates the two countries. According to this division created by the British, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa belong to Pakistan. But Afghanistan views these areas as ‘Pashtunistan’—an independent Pashtun homeland. Naturally, Islamabad has never taken kindly to this view. The problem is that the border has always been highly porous—with Pashtuns spread across either side of the line:
Enter, the Soviet Union: The two countries were also on opposite sides of the Cold War—with Pakistan firmly allied with the US. In the midst of this fractious situation, the Soviet Union walked into Afghanistan in 1979. The US responded by funding and arming the Mujahideen—via the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)—which acted as the “handler, host, and trainer.”
Backing the Taliban: When the Russians retreated, Afghanistan spiralled into chaos—as various factions rushed to fill the vacuum. Islamabad threw its support behind the Taliban:
Through the ensuing civil war in the 1990s, Pakistani generals helped a younger group of fundamentalist Afghan fighters known as the Taliban sweep the fighting factions and establish a government with control over more than 90% of Afghanistan.
The reason: The Taliban was essentially a creation of the ISI—nurtured to counter Pashtun separatism:
To counter Pashtun nationalism, the Pakistani state chose to encourage Islamic fundamentalism. It set up numerous Deobandi madrasas, teaching a particularly strict brand of Islam, in Pashtun territories. The Taliban leadership would emerge from these madrasas — ‘Taliban’ being the Pashto word for ‘student’. Pakistan happily supported the rise of Taliban in its neighbouring country, hoping that their hardline Islam would suppress the Pashtun identity, both at home and in neighbouring Afghanistan.
The 9/11 effect: Things worked well enough until the Taliban gave shelter to the Al Qaeda—who blew up the Twin Towers on 9/11. As Washington unleashed the ‘war on terror’, Pakistan was forced to take sides—and General Pervez Musharraf picked the US. Pakistan has been dealing with the blowback for that decision ever since.
Say hello to Tehrik-e-Taliban: It was formed in 2007—in response to Musharaff’s decision: “The organisation claimed to be an extension of the Afghan Taliban, with designs to eventually establish a strict Islamic state, free of American influence, in Pakistan.” And it soon became the lethal source of domestic terrorism:
In its early years, the TTP’s strategy was centred around attacking civilians in Pakistan to get concessions from the Pakistani state. Most notably, in 2014, the TTP massacred 149, including 132 school children, in an attack on an Army school in Peshawar. Since 2018, the TTP has shifted its focus more directly to attacking military installations.
But here’s the odd thing. Despite this, the ISI continued to back the Afghan Taliban—even in exile. And we now see the consequences of that second bad decision.
The Taliban returns: When they returned to power in 2021, Pakistan was supposed to be a big winner—thanks to ISI’s close relationship to the powerful faction headed by Sirajuddin Haqqani:
The Taliban leadership may not always see eye to eye with the Pakistani state and the ISI, but the ISI’s influence over the Taliban is undeniable. ‘They are our powerful watchmen’ is how one former founding member of the Taliban summarised his relationship with the ISI.
The greatest benefit of this relationship was Haqqani’s willingness to launch attacks against India. Imran Khan, therefore, welcomed the return of the Taliban—and the ISI chief attended the inauguration ceremony.
The end of the love affair: But none of the rosy expectations of the ISI or Imran Khan panned out. The Taliban did not rein in the TTP—while Islamabad didn’t do much to help its cause in the international arena:
Following August 2021, the Taliban expected Pakistan to cajole the international community (particularly the Western powers, with which Islamabad has remained an ally) to either offer de jure or at least de facto recognition of the Taliban regime… [But] Pakistan’s own relations with the Western powers have soured over the last few years, and it thus never had the diplomatic muscle to convince the world to recognize the Taliban.
And a global pariah like the Taliban wasn’t much of an asset—especially once the Pakistan economy spiralled, and it needed an IMF bailout.
The fallout: Relations between Afghanistan have steadily soured—even as the number of border skirmishes and TTP attacks have escalated. A suicide bombing in Peshawar in January this year killed 100 people—the worst such incident since 2018.
The bottomline: The deportation of the refugees is intended to punish Kabul—which does not need millions of Afghans returning to the country when the economy is in tatters. But that is true for Pakistan, as well. Its fragile economy is struggling with hyperinflation. And refugees—as always—offer a convenient scapegoat: “From a domestic socio-political and security environment point of view, this is the time for the state to show that it’s doing something about it. And the refugees seem to be a natural target.”
The Hindu is very good at linking Pakistan’s domestic woes to the deportation move. Indian Express and Al Jazeera have the best overviews. The Diplomat outlines the plight of the refugees. New York Times, CFR and The Diplomat are good at laying out the history of the Pakistan-Afghanistan relationship. Bloomberg News has more on why the decision to back the Taliban has backfired.