Mon 6 Nov 2023
The deportation campaign by Islamabad is cruel. Other countries have let down these refugees too
Human Rights Watch reports that refugees are now facing detentions, beatings and extortion by police. Others have been evicted by landlords or fired from jobs. The result is that Afghans believe they have no choice but to return to a country where they face a serious risk of harm. Iran, too, has repeated its threat to expel hundreds of thousands of undocumented Afghans. The UN high commissioner for refugees has repeatedly called for a bar on the forced return of Afghan nationals. It warns that minorities, journalists and women are at particular risk. “Due precautions,” says Pakistan’s foreign ministry, will be taken to ensure that those under greatest threat are not forced to return. But few have confidence given the abuses already taking place.
With a caretaker government in Islamabad, there is little political accountability for a decision thought to be driven largely by the country’s real rulers, the military. Afghans have become a scapegoat for Pakistan’s unquestionable economic woes. But the deterioration in bilateral relations is thought to be the primary cause of these expulsions. Islamabad wants to pressure the Taliban to act on surging cross-border terror attacks, and has also alleged that Afghan nationals in Pakistan have been involved in some of these attacks.
The acting interior minister, Sarfraz Bugti, is wrong to seek to justify this cruel policy, which saw the Taliban regime’s defence minister chide Pakistan with a proverb in Pashto: “As you sow, so shall you reap.” Mr Bugti has observed that the west should have done more to relocate Afghans if it is concerned about them. This might be a self-serving argument, but it is true. According to humanitarian groups, the $613m regional refugee response plan to support 7.3 million Afghans hosted in neighbouring countries is only 15% funded.
The failure of western countries to live up to their promises and their responsibilities is shameful. For hundreds of thousands of Afghans desperate to escape their country in 2021, nearby Pakistan was the only option. Yet EU states resettled just 271 Afghan refugees in 2022. Afghans had to move to a third country to apply for resettlement, but have been left vulnerable because their visas have expired during the lengthy process.
Astonishingly, around 3,000 Afghans who have been approved for refuge in Britain are stranded in UK-funded hotels in Islamabad, which Pakistani police have raided. Another 25,000 may reportedly be eligible for resettlement in the US. Other countries must press Pakistan to halt these removals; they have leverage since it needs international support to prop up its failing economy. But the rest of the world must make good on its promise to aid vulnerable Afghans.