Amidst a crackdown against undocumented Afghans residing in the country, Pakistan’s authorities have ordered all undocumented Afghans to leave by 1 November or face deportation. In recent weeks, hundreds of refugees have been arrested and detained on the grounds that they do not have adequate paperwork. According to reports, at least four refugees have died in detention.
Ordered to Leave
Since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, thousands of Afghans have fled into surrounding countries. More than 600,000 are estimated to have entered Pakistan, bringing the country’s total population of Afghan refugees (both registered and unregistered) to 3.7 million. 1.4 million are unregistered.
But in recent months, amidst worsening relations between the neighbouring countries, Pakistani authorities have stepped up a year-long crackdown against undocumented Afghans. On 2 October, Pakistan’s Interior Minister stated that all undocumented Afghans must leave the country by 1 November. Those who fail to do so, he said, will face deportation. “If they do not go…then all the law enforcement agencies in the provinces or federal government will be utilised to deport them,” he said. The Pakistani government has recently blamed Afghan nationals for a spate of violence in the country, alleging that Afghan nationals were responsible for 14 of the 24 suicide bombings witnessed in the country this year.
The announcement immediately drew criticism from national and international observers, and on 4 October Amnesty stated: “Amnesty International urges the Government of Pakistan to continue its historic support for Afghan refugees by enabling them to live with dignity and free from the fear of deportation to Afghanistan where they face persecution by the Taliban.”
Waves of arrest
In recent months, authorities have conducted several waves of arrests aimed at detaining and deporting “illegal” Afghan refugees. In their most recent crackdown, authorities have arrested and detained hundreds in Sindh Province (largely in and around Karachi). According to Afghanistan’s embassy in Islamabad, 1,000 Afghans have been arrested in the past two weeks.
Pakistan’s authorities have said that these arrests and detentions are in-line with the country’s Foreigners Act, which permits the country to deport foreigners lacking documentation. But while they claim to be targeting those who are without appropriate paperwork, reports claim that even Afghans who possess valid documents have been apprehended.
In 2021, UNHCR issued a non-return advisory, calling for a bar on the forced return of Afghan nationals. “In the wake of the rapid deterioration in the security and human rights situation in large parts of the country and the unfolding humanitarian emergency, UNHCR calls on States to halt forcible returns of Afghan nationals who have previously been determined not to be in need of international protection.” This was renewed in 2023.
According to one report, Afghan authorities are planning on establishing a “camp” in Nangarhar for all returned Afghans.
According to media reports, Afghans who have been arrested have been placed in various facilities such as Landhi Jail in Karachi. Here, some 650 Afghans are currently detained. Some are reported to be released quickly after paying “fines”–while those unable to pay remain confined. Many reports allege that those in possession of valid paperwork have had their IDs confiscated upon arrest. Children have also been amongst those detained, with photos shared on social media showing young Afghans tied together with rope. Those under the age of 18 have been placed in juvenile jails and remand homes in Karachi.
In March, the Guardian reported that at least four Afghans had died in custody during the recent crackdowns. This included the death of 60-year-old Faiz Muhammad, who died in Landhi Jail in February, and a 50-year-old male who died when he was refused hospital treatment.
Difficulties in Obtaining Paperwork
Pakistan is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, and does not have a national asylum system in place. However, the country has signed an accord with Afghanistan and UNHCR, allowing the refugee agency to provide Proof of Registration (PoR) to Afghan applicants. Once in possession of a PoR, an Afghan is entitled to reside in Pakistan legally.
In reality, however, many Afghans have struggled to obtain their PoR due to “sluggish” processing times within the organisation contracted by UNHCR to provide this paperwork (the Society for Human Rights and Prisoners’ Aid (SHARP)). According to Amnesty, this has made it “virtually impossible for recently arrived Afghans to receive documentation quickly.”