Pakistan Must Stop Sending Afghan Refugees Back to Danger

From Karachi to Peshawar to Quetta to Islamabad, millions of Afghans and other migrants have spent decades making their homes in Pakistan. Last year, the interim government of Pakistan announced a deportation order that most directly impacts Afghan residents, giving the 1.7 million undocumented Afghans residing in the country just 28 days to leave voluntarily or face imprisonment and forced deportation.

In December, Pakistan announced that undocumented Afghans awaiting paperwork to resettle in other countries would be allowed to stay in Pakistan for additional months, but time is once again running out. 

At least two petitions before the Pakistani Supreme Court on the legality of the original repatriation order in September 2023 have yet to be decided. The new government has an opportunity to halt the deportations, but it is choosing to allow them to proceed. They start a second phase of the “Illegal Foreigners’ Repatriation Plan” on April 15 that asks Afghans in Pakistan who hold Afghan Citizen Cards (ACCs) to “voluntarily” leave; those who don’t will be arrested and deported. Pakistani intelligence agencies are already tasked with mapping neighborhoods where ACC holders live to manage their deportations.

Since the deportation campaign began, more than 450,000 people have returned to danger in Afghanistan. Despite promises of a “phased, orderly” process, Pakistani authorities have carried out mass detentions, seized property and livestock, and destroyed identity documents to expel thousands of Afghan refugees and asylum seekers. Families have been separated, a direct violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the Pakistani government signed.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), many of the more than 4 million Afghans residing in Pakistan are refugees. Many fled to Pakistan during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979; more fled during the civil war period of the late 1990s after the first rise of the Taliban. Since the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan after the U.S./NATO withdrawal in August 2021, almost 700,000 Afghans have fled across the border to Pakistan.

Most Afghan refugees in Pakistan are forced to live in legal limbo without access to citizenship, higher education, or significant social and economic mobility. Pakistani law does not offer birthright citizenship for refugees, leaving hundreds of thousands who were born and raised in Pakistan without permanent legal status in the country of their birth. 

Afghans regularly face harassment and ill-treatment in Pakistan, including arbitrary arrests, detainment, abuse by police and security forces, and evictions. 

Those who have been deported or have fled Pakistan face even greater danger in Afghanistan: thousands of refugees are now located just over the border, still vulnerable to a harsh winter with no money, no shelter, and little food.

Afghans who assisted the United States during the twenty-year war there are targeted by the Taliban for violence and death. Women and girls are subject to the Taliban’s gender apartheid conditions that prevent them from accessing secondary and university education, working outside of the home, and existing in public life. Human rights activists and former civil society workers face harassment and forced disappearances. Others continue to struggle to find housing or employment in an economy shattered by international sanctions. 

The Pakistani government’s plan has deadly consequences that contradict its values as the Islamic Republic. According to the hadith, the Prophet Muhammad urged all those who believe in Allah and the Judgement Day to treat their guests generously. The deportation of these vulnerable refugees contradicts that ethos, which led Pakistan’s former President Arif Alvi to stand in solidarity with the people of Gaza and call for an immediate ceasefire and humanitarian relief. 

The Pakistani government should rescind its deportation order and welcome the millions of Afghan refugees who have raised families, built homes, and started businesses in Pakistan. But Pakistan can’t do it alone—the country has its own financial realities to contend with and nearly 25% of its 230 million residents live below the poverty line.

Fortunately, there are solutions that would help refugees caught in the logistical maze. UNHCR should work with the Pakistani government to efficiently register Afghans, as the backlog they have let grow has only made the crisis worse, and the Pakistani government should allow the U.S. to open a Resettlement Support Center to enable the expedient movement of Afghan refugees to countries where they hold valid visas. 

The U.S. government has a further role to play, given its contribution to Afghanistan’s refugee crisis. In addition, 76,000 evacuated Afghans—including Afghan allies who supported Americans during the 20-year occupation—now temporarily reside in the U.S. under the Operation Allies Welcome (OAW) program. Congress must pass the Afghan Adjustment Act so Afghans in the diaspora can find lasting paths to safety in the relative security of the U.S. and at-risk Afghan allies can make the United States their permanent home.  

Most importantly, Pakistan must not disregard the human rights of vulnerable Afghan refugees by deporting them back to the dangerous conditions they fled. 



  • Seelai Karzai

Published on April 1, 2024


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