ISLAMABAD — The Pakistani government approved the creation of several deportation centers for hundreds of thousands of illegally residing Afghan nationals they plan to arrest and repatriate to Afghanistan starting next month, VOA learned Tuesday.
Approval of the Illegal Foreigners Repatriation Plan comes ahead of the November 1 deadline the government set for all “illegal/unregistered foreigners” and those “overstaying their visa validity periods” to return to their countries of origin or face deportation for breaching Pakistan’s immigration laws.
Pakistani Interior Minister Sarfaraz Bugti, when announcing the deadline in early October, said an estimated 1.7 million Afghans are among those facing forcible eviction.
Official sources told VOA that special deportation centers would be established in the country’s four provinces: Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Afghans detained in Punjab and Sindh will be transferred to centers in Rawalpindi and Karachi districts, respectively.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa will have two deportation centers — in Nowshehra and Chamkani — while Baluchistan will house three facilities in the provincial capital of Quetta, and in Pishin and Qilla Abdullah districts. These two provinces line Pakistan’s nearly 2,600-kilometer (1,600-mile) border with Afghanistan and collectively host most refugee families.
The new plan empowers district administrations, police, prosecution and prison authorities to detain and deport illegally residing Afghan nationals. It specifies that individuals convicted of or currently on trial for minor offenses will be expelled, whereas those convicted of or facing trial for “serious crimes” will not be sent back to Afghanistan.
Islamabad has pledged to carry out the deportations in “a phased and orderly manner.” It has also clarified that the crackdown would not target 1.4 million Afghan refugees living legally in the country and around 900,000 others holding valid Afghan citizenship cards and formally registered in Pakistan as economic migrants.
The government has formally directed law enforcement agencies not to harass refugees there legally and those carrying Afghan nationality cards, although Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers and refugee families have alleged that some were subjected to police abuses, mistreatment and extortion.
The Taliban have called on Pakistan to review the deportation plan, decrying it as “inhumane” and “unacceptable.” However, they have lately set up special camps on the Afghan side of the border to provide immediate shelter, health, food and financial aid to families returning from the neighboring country.
Officials in both countries have confirmed that tens of thousands of Afghans have voluntarily returned to their home country since Islamabad announced the deadline nearly a month ago.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, while speaking to an Afghan television channel Tuesday, urged Pakistan to treat Afghan refugees “humanely” and extend the period of deportation. He asked all the refugees to return to their country, claiming they have turned war-torn Afghanistan into a “safer and better” place.
The Taliban seized power from a U.S.-backed government in August 2021 when the United States and NATO troops withdrew from the country after nearly two decades of involvement in the Afghan war.
The Taliban takeover prompted hundreds of thousands of people to flee to Pakistan, fearing retribution for their association with Western forces. They included human rights defenders, former government officials, professionals, female activists and journalists. Many have since been relocated to the U.S. and other Western countries, while thousands are awaiting the processing of their applications for resettlement in the United States and Europe.
The Taliban imposed their strict interpretation of Islamic law, barring teenage girls from receiving an education and many women from work. The restrictions have discouraged many Afghan refugee families from returning to Afghanistan, saying their daughters cannot seek education or work there.
The United Nations also has urged Islamabad to suspend its plan to force out Afghans seeking refuge, warning it could expose them to persecution and other abuse by the country’s de facto Taliban authorities.