Pakistan Demands Deportations of Afghans, Stoking Tension With Taliban

Hundreds of police officers flooded into a Karachi slum around midnight, surrounding the homes of Afghan migrants and pounding at their doors. Under the harsh glare of floodlights, the police told women to stand to one side of their homes and demanded the men present immigration papers proving they were living in Pakistan legally. Those without documents were lined up in the street, some shaking with fear for what was to come: Detention in a Pakistani prison and deportation to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

The police raid on Friday in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, followed an abrupt decision by the Pakistani authorities last week to deport the more than one million Afghan migrants living illegally in the country.

“Police entered every house without warning,” said Abdul Bashar, an Afghan migrant whose two cousins were among the 51 people who the police said were arrested during the neighborhood sweep. “The fear has left us restless, making it difficult for us to sleep peacefully at night.”

On Tuesday, Pakistan’s Interior Ministry announced that migrants residing illegally in the country had 28 days to leave voluntarily, and it offered a “reward” for information leading to their arrests once that deadline passed.

Though Pakistani officials say the crackdown applies to all foreign citizens, the policy is largely believed to be targeting Afghans, who make up the vast majority of migrants in Pakistan.

While Afghans have faced harassment in Pakistan for decades, this announcement was the government’s most far-reaching and explicit action affecting Afghan migrants. It was widely seen as a sign of the increasing hostility between the Pakistani government and the Taliban authorities in neighboring Afghanistan as they clash over extremist groups operating across their borders.

At an Afghan refugee camp in Karachi last month.Credit…Rizwan Tabassum/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Over the past year, Pakistan has experienced a surge in terrorist attacks, both by militant groups that have found haven in Afghanistan under the Taliban administration and by others whose fighters have been pushed into Pakistan following a brutal Taliban-led crackdown on their ranks. Some former Taliban fighters have also migrated to Pakistan to wage jihad against the Pakistani government.

For months, the Pakistani authorities have pleaded with the Taliban to rein in extremist violence stemming from Afghan soil. But Taliban officials have rebuffed those calls, instead offering to mediate talks between the Pakistani authorities and the militants.

The growing animosity between the two countries has threatened to further destabilize a region that is already a political tinderbox.

On one side of the contested border, the Taliban administration in Afghanistan is armed with a vast arsenal of American-made weapons left during the U.S. withdrawal and feels encouraged by its victory over a global superpower. Many within the Taliban have also harbored resentment toward Pakistan for decades.

On the other is nuclear-armed Pakistan, which has struggled with military coups, volatile politics and waves of sectarian violence since its founding 75 years ago.

Caught in between are the roughly 1.7 million Afghans living in Pakistan illegally, according to Pakistani officials. Among them are around 600,000 people — including journalists, activists and former policemen, soldiers and former officials with the toppled U.S.-backed government — who fled after the Taliban seized power, according to United Nations estimates.

Many of those migrants face a stark choice: Either return to Afghanistan, where they fear persecution by the Taliban, or remain in Pakistan and face harassment from the Pakistani authorities.

“We have been left in the lurch,” said Mahmood Kochai, an Afghan journalist who fled to Pakistan with his wife and six children after the Taliban seized power.

Afghan children studying the Quran at an Afghan refugee camp in Karachi.Credit…Rizwan Tabassum/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Like many Afghan migrants in the capital, Islamabad, Mr. Kochai arrived in Pakistan on a temporary visa, anticipating an asylum decision from Western embassies in Islamabad. Soon after arriving, he applied for sanctuary in the United States under a refugee program for Afghans who worked with the U.S. government or U.S.-funded organizations.

But since he applied more than a year ago, he has not heard anything back, Mr. Kochai said. Now, he is concerned about the expiration of their Pakistani visas in two months.

In Karachi, home to a sizable population of Afghan migrants, news of migrants’ getting arrested at security checkpoints on roads and in markets during routine outings has stoked panic.

Ali, a former Afghan security official who would give only his first name because of his immigrant status in Pakistan, said he and his neighbors — also Afghan migrants — had barely gone outside for two weeks, fearing getting arrested and being sent back to Afghanistan. If he is deported, he worries he faces arrest — or worse — because of his affiliation with the U.S.-backed government.

The new policy has in fact drawn criticism from human rights groups, which say deporting Afghans could put them at risk in Afghanistan. Despite the Taliban’s policy of blanket amnesty for Afghans who worked with the U.S.-backed government, human rights monitors have documented hundreds of abuses against former government officials since the Taliban seized power.

Pakistani officials have defended the policy as necessary to protect Pakistan from extremist violence. In a news conference on Tuesday, the Pakistani caretaker government’s interior minister, Sarfraz Bugti, asserted that Afghans were involved in 14 of the 24 major terrorist attacks in Pakistan this year.

“There are attacks on us from Afghanistan, and Afghan nationals are involved in those attacks,” he said. Taliban officials denied those claims.

An Afghan family near Peshawar, Pakistan, on Friday.Credit…Abdul Majeed/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The aggressive approach echoes similar crackdowns on Afghan migrants in years past, observers say. After a string of major terrorist attacks in 2016, the Pakistani authorities began a sweeping campaign to uproot Afghan migrants, forcing around 600,000 back to Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch characterized Pakistan’s actions as the world’s “largest unlawful mass forced return of refugees” in recent times.

“Afghans always get stuck when foreign relations break down between Afghanistan and Pakistan,”said Sanaa Alimia, researcher and author of “Refugee Cities: How Afghans Changed Urban Pakistan.”

“That usually manifests itself as harassment of ordinary Afghans in the country and those getting harassed are usually in the lowest income groups, they are an easy target,” she added.

Pakistan has not signed the 1951 Geneva Convention and its 1967 protocol covering the status of refugees, which protects people seeking asylum. Instead, Pakistan’s Foreigners’ Act grants the authorities the right to apprehend, detain and expel foreigners — including refugees and asylum seekers — who lack valid documentation.

After previous crackdowns, many Afghans have either remained in Pakistan or returned after being deported — underlining the limit of the Pakistani government’s ability to repatriate Afghans, experts say.

Now, with the government facing dueling economic and political crises, it is unclear how the Pakistani authorities would repatriate such a large number of refugees, a deportation campaign requiring substantial personnel as well as military and intelligence resources.

Maulvi Abdul Jabbar Takhari, the Taliban’s consul general in Karachi, said that many Afghans who had been arrested possess legal documents allowing them to live in Pakistan and that Taliban officials had been trying to secure their release.

Mr. Takhari, who lived as a refugee in Karachi for several years, urged Pakistan’s government “to provide a specific time frame for undocumented refugees so that they can peacefully and respectfully wind up their businesses and return to their homeland.”

But for Afghan migrants, the wave of arrests has been a chilling reminder of their precarious status in Pakistan. Many arrived in the country decades ago, after the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and after the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal.

Abdullah Bukhari, 51, came to Karachi in 1980 from Kunduz Province fleeing violence during the Soviet-Afghan war. The notion of uprooting his life in less than a month feels absurd and heartbreaking.

“How can they uproot everything in such a short period?” Mr. Bukhari asked. “We’ve spent our lives as refugees and amid conflict, but our biggest concern is for our children. They have never experienced Afghanistan even for a day.”

At an Afghan refugee camp in Karachi.Credit…Rizwan Tabassum/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
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