Thousands of Afghan refugees fleeing Pakistan as deportation deadline looms

Islamabad, Pakistan – Thousands of Afghan refugees and migrants in Pakistan are heading to the border to return home a day before a government-imposed deadline to leave the country expires.

Earlier this month, Pakistan’s interim interior minister, Sarfaraz Bugti, issued an October 31 deadline for all “illegal” refugees and migrants to leave, citing security concerns.

The government says more than four million foreigners live in Pakistan, a vast majority of them Afghan nationals who sought refuge over the last four decades after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

More recently, after the Taliban regained power in 2021, Pakistani officials say between 600,000 to 800,000 Afghans migrated to Pakistan.

The Pakistani government claims nearly 1.7 million of those Afghans are undocumented.

Local media reports on Tuesday said nearly 100,000 Afghan immigrants have voluntarily gone back to their country from Torkham border crossing in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Chaman crossing in Balochistan provinces this month.

Bugti on Monday denied the repatriation drive was targeted against the Afghans. “Most of the undocumented people are from Afghanistan, and the impression that only people from Afghanistan are being evicted is wrong,” he told a news conference.

The government is also setting up deportation centres in all four provinces to detain foreigners until they are sent back. Rights groups and the United Nations have slammed Pakistan’s decision to evict the refugees.

The deportation order came during a dramatic surge in armed attacks in Pakistan, which the government blames on Afghanistan-based groups and nationals, allegations denied by the Afghan Taliban.

“There have been 24 suicide bomb attacks since January this year and 14 of them were carried out by Afghan nationals,” Bugti said on October 3 when he announced the repatriation plan.

Adeela Akhtar, an Afghan refugee in Rawalpindi, told Al Jazeera she had “no idea what tomorrow [Wednesday] will bring” for her.

“If the police come to my door tomorrow, I will plead with them, implore them to let me stay. I cannot go back, but I don’t know how else to convince them to let me stay here,” said the 47-year-old widow and a mother of two children.

“If police come to my door tomorrow, I will plead them, implore them to let me stay. I cannot go back, but I don’t know how else to convince them to let me stay here,” she says.

Akhtar, a former school teacher in Kabul, moved to Pakistan 18 months ago after the Taliban took over as she feared for her safety. She said she applied for the Pakistani visa and made multiple visits to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office for securing documentation to facilitate her stay, but did not get any help.

Asad Khan, an Islamabad-based lawyer who provides legal aid to Afghan refugees, criticised the government’s move, saying it violated their fundamental rights.

“Pakistan’s constitution guarantees the dignity of man, and the same applies to refugees, too. We can say that under certain international laws, which have been ratified by Pakistan, sending these people back is illegal,” he told Al Jazeera.

Khan said removing Afghans who had been living in Pakistan for many years – and even decades – would be “deeply disruptive” to their lives.

“They have built homes, families and livelihoods here in Pakistan and now returning to Afghanistan surely poses significant challenges for them. The security situation in Afghanistan remains uncertain, economic opportunities are scarce, and access to essential services like healthcare and education is limited,” he said.

“Above all, the psychological toll of returning to a war-torn country cannot be understated. It is imperative that any such policy carefully considers the wellbeing and safety of these refugees and adheres to international obligations to protect vulnerable populations.”

In a statement on Tuesday, Human Rights Watch condemned Pakistan’s decision and said the government was using “threats, abuse, and detention to coerce Afghan asylum seekers without legal status to return to Afghanistan or face deportation”.

“Pakistan’s announced deadline for Afghans to return has led to detentions, beatings, and extortion, leaving thousands of Afghans in fear over their future,” said Fereshta Abbasi, the Afghanistan researcher at HRW.

“The situation in Afghanistan remains dangerous for many who fled, and deportation will expose them to significant security risks, including threats to their lives and well-being.”

Thousands of Afghan refugees fleeing Pakistan as deportation deadline looms