BACKGROUND: On October 3, the Pakistani government announced that all illegal migrants must leave the country by November 1 – following criticism it extended the deadline to December 31, 2023 – or face arrest and forced deportation. Pakistan’s Interior Minister Sarfarz Bugti said that businesses and properties of those living illegally in Pakistan will be confiscated if they do not leave the country. Although the order applies to all illegal migrants in Pakistan, Afghans will bear the brunt as they comprise the vast majority of undocumented foreigners in Pakistan. Over 4 million Afghan migrants and refugees are living in Pakistan. Islamabad says that around 1.7 million of them are undocumented. An estimated 300,000 Afghans have returned home since the deportation order was announced. Meanwhile, Pakistani authorities have begun rounding up migrants and detaining them in temporary holding centers.
Pakistan has hosted Afghans since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. For decades, the Afghan migrants were useful ‘tools’ that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence used to wield influence in Afghanistan; it was from among the Afghan refugee camps that they recruited fighters for the various mujahideen groups and the Taliban. So why is Pakistan now deporting Afghan migrants? Pakistan has sought to justify its deportation of undocumented Afghans on the grounds of national security. Without providing evidence, Bugti alleged that 14 of 24 suicide attacks over the past year were carried out by Afghan nationals. Pakistani analysts have said that the deportation move is aimed at ensuring long-term security and stability in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s mass expulsion of Afghans is also aimed at the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Relations between the two have frayed seriously in recent years. Islamabad alleges that the Taliban is sheltering and supporting the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)’s attacks in Pakistan. Despite its requests, the Taliban has not reined in the TTP. “Non-cooperation” of the Taliban regime with Islamabad is said to have prompted the Pakistani decision to deport Afghans. The deportation move is likely aimed at getting the Taliban regime to fall in line. The latter has accused Pakistan of pressuring Kabul to accept the Durand Line as the International Border.
Although Pakistan is not a signatory to either the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol, it is still bound by a tripartite agreement it signed with Afghanistan and the UNHCR in 2003, which grants Afghan refugees rights and privileges, and protects them from forced repatriation. Islamabad is therefore violating commitments made under international law. The move has been strongly criticized by the United Nations and human rights groups, as well as the Taliban regime.
IMPLICATIONS: Pakistan’s mass expulsion of undocumented Afghan migrants will have far-reaching implications both domestically and regionally. Although Pakistani authorities have often described Afghan migrants as a drain on their economy and a strain on Pakistani resources, the abrupt exit of the migrants will adversely impact Pakistan’s economy. Afghans have participated robustly in the agriculture and construction sectors and the informal labor market. They have set up small businesses that contributed to local economies, invested in real estate and played a major role in the trucking business. Their sudden exit could impact property values, and disrupt supply chains and transportation of goods inside Pakistan and to Afghanistan. This, in turn, would increase the cost of commodities, adding to Pakistan’s economic woes.
Far from improving internal security, the deportation of undocumented Afghan migrants will make Pakistan more vulnerable to terror attacks. Anger with the Pakistani government is running high among the deportees as they feel ill-treated and humiliated by the crackdown. Since they were not given time to wind up their businesses, they are going home penniless. For some, Pakistan is their home as they have lived here for decades. Now they are being driven out. Hounded by the police, helpless and angry with their situation, these people will be vulnerable to extremist ideologies and methods. Radical and terrorist groups like the TTP will find many recruits among them. A surge in violent attacks in Pakistan can be expected in the coming months.
Across the border, in Afghanistan, an already dire situation could worsen as the return of hundreds of thousands of people will put the country’s already strained resources under immense pressure. A mix of anger and alienation could drive impoverished deportees into the waiting arms of groups like the Islamic State-Khorasan (ISK) that are fighting the Taliban regime. Many Afghans who are now being forced back to Afghanistan, went to Pakistan because they were fleeing Taliban persecution. They are now vulnerable to Taliban punishment.
Already fraying relations between Pakistan and the Taliban regime can be expected to worsen. A war of words has already broken out over the mass deportation of Afghans from Pakistan. Senior ministers in the Taliban regime have issued warnings. While Afghanistan’s interim Deputy Prime Minister Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai warned Islamabad to “not force their hand to react over the move,” Defense Minister Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob said that Pakistan should “be ready to reap what it sows.” The message from Kabul is that Pakistan’s expulsion of Afghans would not be without consequences for Pakistan. This could become manifested in Kabul deepening its support to the TTP. In recent months, Pakistani and Taliban forces have clashed frequently along their border, prompting Islamabad to close border crossings. Such clashes could grow in frequency and magnitude as bilateral relations unravel further.
Pakistan’s abject failure to deal with the TTP and to curb its attacks in Pakistan has prompted it to strike back in frustration at the Taliban regime by pushing back hundreds of thousands of Afghans to Afghanistan. But this is an ill-conceived decision as it is likely to boomerang against Islamabad. Far from improving Pakistan’s security and stability, the move will make it more vulnerable to terrorism and violence.
CONCLUSIONS: Pakistan’s decision to forcibly deport Afghan migrants is illegal, inhumane and illogical. The Pakistani establishment is using the Afghan refugees as scapegoats for its own security and governance failures. If its internal security is weak this is because of its flawed policies. The Afghans who took shelter in Pakistan are victims of decades of civil wars in Afghanistan, wars which were partly fueled by the ISI. These migrants were used by the ISI to further Pakistan’s goals in Afghanistan. They are now being pushed back and could be further victimized at home. Forcibly pushing back the migrants is an ill-conceived policy as it will only worsen the problem – terrorism at home – that Pakistan has set out to address.