Thousands of unregistered Afghan refugees in Pakistan are rushing to the border as they face a looming deadline that forces them either to leave the country or be deported, according to reports from the British newspaper, The Independent.
Fleeing the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, thousands of Afghan citizens sought refuge in Pakistan. Currently, over two million undocumented Afghans reside in Pakistan, including 600,000 who fled following the Taliban’s control of their homeland, as per United Nations agencies.
Earlier, officials in Islamabad had stated that undocumented Afghans living in the country would face arrest and deportation after the expiry of the deadline on Tuesday. This campaign has left the Torkham and Chaman border crossings, on the northern and western sides of the shared border between the two countries, open past 4 p.m. on the date of the final deadline, to allow those wishing to leave from these points.
Pakistani officials have reported that “more than 200,000 Afghans have left the country since the beginning of the security campaign” in early October. This sharp increase has also been confirmed by United Nations agencies. Pakistan has stated that the deportations will be carried out in a “gradual and organized manner.”
The move affects thousands of Afghans who are awaiting their asylum applications from relevant international agencies. Thousands who fled the country post-August 2021 are also awaiting their transfer to the United States under a special refugee program. The application rules in the US require them to move to a third country to process their cases.
Several embassies of NATO member countries in Islamabad, along with the United Nations Refugee Agency, are exerting pressure on high-level officials in the Pakistani government to exempt thousands of Afghans awaiting resettlement in Western countries from deportation, according to Reuters.
An American diplomat seeking anonymity stated, according to the Washington Post, that “Washington’s priority is to facilitate the safe and effective resettlement and transfer of over 25,000 eligible Afghans to the United States.”
The Pakistani campaign has drawn widespread criticism from United Nations agencies and human rights groups. Officials in Western embassies and the United Nations have asked Pakistan to “find a way to identify and protect the thousands of undocumented migrants to prevent them from being persecuted by the Taliban.”
Qaisar Khan Afridi, the spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Pakistan, said, “We ask the government to establish a comprehensive system and mechanism for managing and registering people at risk of direct persecution if forced to return.”
He added, “They cannot go back; they cannot return to Afghanistan because their freedom or lives may be at risk.”
It remains unclear whether Pakistan has agreed to the United Nations and other embassies’ proposals. The campaign comes amid strained relations between Pakistan and the neighbouring Taliban rulers.
Islamabad accuses the Taliban government of turning a blind eye to militants allied with the extremist movement, who find sanctuary in Afghanistan, aiding their free movement back and forth across the shared border between the two countries, which stretches 2,611 kilometres, to launch attacks in Pakistan.
In response, the Taliban has typically denied these allegations. Afghanistan is also one of the world’s poorest countries, suffering from consecutive severe humanitarian crises, particularly affecting women and girls who have been denied education beyond the sixth grade and access to most public places and jobs by the Taliban.
There are also restrictions on media, activists, and civil society organizations as the Taliban-ruled country faces drought and earthquakes, with millions fearing the upcoming winter season.