By Sher Ali Kakar
Pakistan has one of the world’s largest refugee populations, hosting nearly four million Afghan refugees. For decades, Pakistan has generously hosted its Afghan neighbours in years of conflict and humanitarian crisis. Given the shared border between the two countries coupled with deep cultural linkages, Pakistan is inevitably the primary destination for the Afghan people. Recently, Pakistan`s caretaker government announced to repatriate the illegal migrants, including the 1.7 million undocumented Afghan refugees, by November 1st, justifying it for an increase in terrorist activities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces. As the deadline expires, authorities have launched a nationwide crackdown against undocumented foreigners. Despite the federal government’s notification, which permits the registered refugees to remain temporarily and orders relevant authorities to desist from detaining them, the illegal arrest is making their lives worse, leaving a large number of Afghans in fear over their future.
Pakistan has witnessed multiple waves of Afghan refugee influxes. The first influx of Afghan refugees began in 1979 after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which pushed more than three million people into Pakistan`s territory. This was followed by another wave when the United States and NATO forces launched the war against terror in Afghanistan after 9/11, resulting in the migration of thousands of Afghan nationals to Pakistan. After the withdrawal of the US and NATO forces from Afghanistan in August 2021 and the return of the Taliban to power, another wave of refugee influx began, and over 600,000 Afghan nationals entered Pakistan. This time, spilling into Pakistan is mainly due to fear of persecution by the Taliban authorities and the imposition of their rigid rules.
Pakistan`s current policy of sending back Afghan nationals is driven by the country’s efforts to improve the security situation in the country. The presence of Afghan refugees has long been controversial, as a proportion of them are behind illegal activities happening in Pakistan and their role in the country`s social, economic, and security problems. However, the recent crackdown against Afghan nationals has raised concerns about the forceful deportation amid Afghanistan`s humanitarian crisis, exacerbated by the deadly earthquake and the harsh winter which is fast approaching. Pakistan should continue its generous support for their Afghan neighbours, ensure that they live with dignity, and ensure the protection of their businesses and properties. Pakistan needs to take steps to ensure the dignified and voluntary repatriation of the Afghan people with the help of UNHCR, which has already announced to extend its support to Pakistan in the registration process of undocumented Afghan nationals.
The interim government of Afghanistan, on its part, needs to take steps to encourage Afghan nationals living in different parts of the world, especially in Pakistan, to return to their homeland and contribute to the reconstruction of their country. For this, they first need to ensure that there are no human rights violations and that there is no persecution against the people. Secondly, for the integration of Afghani society, they need to establish an inclusive government, giving representation to women and minorities. Moreover, the Taliban authorities should collaborate with Pakistan on the border management issue, which has been a source of concern for Pakistan as it is used for illegal commercial activities and illegal movements of people.
The trust gap between Islamabad and Kabul has already widened due to the Taliban`s government’s failure to prevent Afghan soil from being used against Pakistan and their reluctance to collaborate with Pakistan on border management issues. The refugee factor can add another dimension to Pakistan-Afghan relations. There is an urgent need for collaboration between the two countries on border management, refugees management, economic, and security issues.
—The author is working as a Research officer in Balochistan Think Tank Network (BTTN), at BUITEMS, Quetta