Islamabad’s policy of deporting all undocumented foreigners will have widespread repercussions.
On Wednesday, Pakistan began the process of expelling all undocumented foreigners, including 1.7 million Afghans—one of the country’s largest immigrant communities. Officials say the policy, which was first announced last month, will be implemented in phases, with migrants and refugees temporarily placed in holding centers before deportation.
Afghans in Pakistan have faced forced repatriations in the past but never on this scale. Islamabad claims the mass expulsion will protect public welfare and make Pakistan safer. But it’s likely that domestic politics and worsening relations with Taliban-led Afghanistan drove the government’s decision.
In recent weeks, Islamabad called on undocumented foreigners to leave voluntarily by Nov. 1. The government said on Monday that around 200,000 Afghan nationals had left over the past two months. Recent days have featured harrowing scenes of Afghan students hugging their Pakistani classmates goodbye and trucks lining up at the border piled high with Afghans’ belongings.
The potential repercussions of Pakistan’s draconian decision are devastating. Taliban-led Afghanistan is not prepared to accommodate masses of returnees, who will be greeted by a vast humanitarian crisis—15 million Afghans are acutely food insecure—exacerbated by drought, floods, and earthquakes. Afghanistan also faces severe global aid cuts and fewer international relief groups operating in its borders due to Taliban policies. Most returning girls and women won’t be able to attend school or work.
For decades, Pakistan has been a top destination for Afghans fleeing conflict, with several million entering the country since the 1970s, including at least 600,000 after the Taliban takeover in 2021. Pakistan prides itself on its ability to house so many Afghan refugees despite its constraints as a poor country. But human rights groups have documented Afghans facing years of discrimination at work, school, and at the hands of landlords and law enforcement. Some Pakistanis, including government officials, have accused Afghans of stealing jobs, dealing drugs, and participating in terrorism. Pakistani officials have previously ordered thousands of them to leave.
Likely for these reasons, many Afghans started to avoid Pakistan nearly a decade ago and instead fled to Europe via the Mediterranean. But for hundreds of thousands of Afghans desperate to escape their country in 2021, nearby Pakistan was the easiest option. They’re all vulnerable now—especially those who previously worked for the U.S. military and await approval to enter the United States on special immigration visas.
Islamabad insists its decision falls within applicable international norms—likely a reference to the many countries, including in the West, that deport undocumented immigrants. It emphasizes that the policy targets all undocumented foreigners, not just Afghans, and that legal immigrants aren’t affected (though reports emerged this week of some documented Afghans being deported, too). It is not clear whom, exactly, the policy will affect, but data in recent years suggests deportations may also impact migrants and refugees from Iran, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka.
Indeed, it’s clear that Afghans have become scapegoats as Pakistan weathers both one of its worst economic crises in years and a major resurgence of terrorism by the Afghanistan-based Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Last month, interim Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti accused Afghans of being involved in organized crime and terrorism and indirectly accused them of hampering Pakistan’s economic recovery.
Some Pakistanis condemn the move and have staged protests against it in recent days, though there is no recent data suggesting how many might oppose it. At any rate, public opinion is unlikely to sway Islamabad. Pakistan is led by an apolitical caretaker government preparing the country for elections in January. The military, which exerts heavy influence over the caretaker regime, is likely driving the policy. (The army chief publicly endorsed the move and attended the meeting finalizing the plan.) But it’s letting the caretaker regime—which need not worry about political blowback—take any public flak.
Additionally, Pakistan’s relations with the Taliban have worsened because Islamabad thinks the group has not done enough to curb the presence of TTP fighters and bases in Afghanistan. Islamabad may be using the expulsion policy in part to compel the Taliban—which have condemned the move—to help more on counterterrorism. Sadly, vulnerable Afghans—from young new arrivals to older and established residents who embrace Pakistan as their only home—are becoming casualties of broader geopolitical machinations.
Michael Kugelman, the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief and the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center.