Last week, the government of Pakistan announced that all undocumented migrants must leave the country by 1 November or face deportation. Afghan refugees are the biggest illegal immigrant group in Pakistan with their number totalling 1.7 million. This includes 600,000 who fled Afghanistan after the Taliban seized power in August 2021.
Pakistan’s sudden announcement has surprised many experts and commentators. A contextual study of the circumstances reveals that Islamabad has taken this decision to achieve two primary objectives.
First, using the mass deportation of Afghans, Pakistan is trying to pressure the neighbouring Taliban regime to cooperate with Islamabad in preventing cross-border attacks originating from Afghanistan – a demand the Taliban has been reluctant to accept.
Pakistan also believes that Afghan immigrants based in Pakistan are being used for terror attacks inside the country. Sarfraz Bugti, Pakistan’s caretaker Interior Minister, told local media that since January, Pakistan has witnessed 24 suicide bombings, of which 14 were carried out by Afghan nationals.
Second, Islamabad believes that Afghan immigrants are involved in the smuggling of US dollars out of Pakistan to the tune of US$5 million per day. This is thought to have contributed to Pakistan’s imminent default earlier this year, which was averted only by a last-minute deal with the International Monetary Fund. By cracking down on the businesses of Afghans and deporting those staying illegally in the country, Pakistan hopes to address leakages of foreign exchange to prevent further deterioration of its economy.
Moreover, political pundits are questioning Pakistan’s structural capacity to achieve its ambitious goal of deporting 1.7 million Afghans. Islamabad does not have the required human and financial resources to arrest and expatriate almost two million people. The exercise will require hundreds of thousands of additional security personnel and space in jails. Given the economic troubles that Pakistan is facing, the country is not in a position to finance the huge expenditure needed for this exercise.
Deporting the impoverished Afghan immigrants back to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, from which most of them escaped in 2021, will be considered a human rights violation and will earn Pakistan widespread opprobrium. Indeed, the condemnations of this proposed move have already begun, with the United Nations stating that forcibly deporting Afghans from Pakistan would include the separation of families and deportation of minors. Amnesty International urged Pakistan to allow Afghans to live with dignity and be free from the fear of deportation to Afghanistan where they face persecution by the Taliban.
This is just the beginning. Pakistan will face much criticism once it officially starts the deportation process. Given Islamabad needs the support of the global community in the form of loans to survive, it is not in a position to attract their wrath.
Common sense and basic respect for human rights dictate that Pakistan halt the forced deportation process and deal with the issue of more than a million illegal immigrants in a systematic manner with the collaboration of UN agencies.