Moniza Kakar, a Karachi-based human rights lawyer, has been representing Afghan refugees in Pakistan’s courts since July 2022. In recent months, though, she’s noted a sharp increase in her caseload—in Karachi alone, more than 1,500 Afghans have faced arrest since September, 80% of whom were legally registered refugees.
The uptick in the city comes as Pakistan’s government has called for all undocumented migrants to leave the country by November 1 or face deportation. The decision largely stands to impact the 1.7 million Afghan refugees who live in the country without documentation, though experts tell TIME that many Afghans with proper documentation have found themselves swept up in the enforcement as well.
The decision poses wide-reaching consequences, but it is not the first time the country has tried to crack down on the rights of refugees, says Hameed Hakimi, associate fellow at the Asia-Pacific Programme and Europe Programme at Chatham House. “To deflect blame from the challenges that the government or the country overall is facing, they always raised the issue of illegal immigrants chiefly from Afghanistan,” Hakimi says, noting that the blame game serves to “showcase that the country's problem largely arises from neighboring countries instead of focusing internally on their own on their own government's policies,” Hakimi says.
This especially rings true now, as the country is at a “historically low point,” Hakimi says. Pakistan is currently facing compounding crises— including dire economic prospects, humanitarian crises, and political instability, not to mention a recent wave of terrorism that experts say has been erroneously attributed to refugees.
“From a domestic socio-political and security environment point of view, this is the time for the state to show that it's doing something about it. And the refugees seem to be a natural target of the state,” says Hakimi.
Barriers to Entry
Pakistan has long hosted a large population of refugees from Afghanistan, dating back to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. But 1.4 of the country’s 4 million Afghan refugees are undocumented—and the process of obtaining documentation is anything but easy, even for those who have long called the country home.
“These are families we have lived and struggled on both sides of the border. They have established their lives in Pakistan, they have their businesses and houses and their kids go to school there. Their children and grandchildren haven’t even seen Afghanistan, so they consider themselves blended Pakistanis now,” says Atta Nasib, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University. “But given that Pakistan doesn’t have a dual nationality law and Afghans mostly cannot receive Pakistani citizenship, they’re in a confused state at the moment.”
For refugees who recently arrived in the country following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, documentation of any kind is hard to come by—Pakistan failed to create a lasting plan for the 700,000 thousand Afghans who poured into the country “After the fall of Kabul, the UNHCR stopped issuing registration cards to Afghan refugees,” she says. “They only issued tokens which have no legal status in the courts of Pakistan.”
In a statement, Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed that the decision was compliant with the country’s domestic laws and was not targeted towards Afghans in particular or foreign nationals with legal residency. “The Government of Pakistan takes its commitments towards protection and safety needs of those in vulnerable situations with utmost seriousness. Our record of the last forty years in hosting millions of our Afghan brothers and sisters speaks for itself.”
In December 2021, a group of U.N. experts urged Pakistan to withhold from expelling undocumented Afghans until the country’s political situation allowed for safe return—an outcome that is still out of reach for many, including journalists, activists, and former government officials that are being targeted by the Taliban.
“Hundreds of thousands of Afghans who entered Pakistan after August 2021 were only supposed to be there temporarily. Pakistan has never had a long-term plan or policy for its Afghan migrants, and making such pronouncements every few years is the flawed way it has dealt with them,” Madiha Afzal, a foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution told TIME in an email.
A 'Human Rights Catastrophe'
The Pakistani government approved the creation of deportation centers in all provinces earlier this month and nearly 60,000 Afghans have already left the country ahead of the November 1 deadline. Pakistan is not a signatory of the Geneva Convention or the U.N. Refugee Convention, and the country’s Foreigners Act allows authorities to arrest, detain, and deport any foreigner that lacks proper documentation.
The UNHCR warned that the move could trigger a “human rights catastrophe.” Nasib notes that without support from international organizations, Pakistan does not have the resources to meet the demand. “How do you deal with like 4.4 million refugees without having some sort of monetary support from the international community, where you can provide them food, shelter, and medicine?” says Nasib.
2,700 Afghans have been deported from Karachi alone since Kakar began working on refugee cases over a year ago. “They were human-rights defenders, school-going girls and they didn’t want to go back to Afghanistan,” she says, who says that the blanket claim of terrorism is unfair. “They are not criminals. They have a right to dignity,” says Kakar. Her female clients who have returned to Afghanistan have shared the challenges that come with being unable to attend school or work. “Families where the women were the bread earners are facing a lot of difficulty there.”
Despite Pakistan’s goal, the countries shared histories—and borders— mean that the two cannot be untangled. “You cannot separate Pakistan and Afghanistan, even in the future, because there’s so much history,” Nasib says. “It’s a love-hate relationship.”
—With reporting by Anna Gordon
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