The Pakistan government’s order to all undocumented migrants to leave the country by October 31 has thrown the lives of hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees in jeopardy. The interim government in Islamabad says its decision is not targeted at any particular nationality. But given the numbers of Afghan refugees in Pakistan, it is evident who is being targeted. Over the decades, millions of Afghans have taken refuge in Pakistan, mostly fleeing violence in their civil war-stricken country. According to the United Nations, about 1.3 million Afghans have been registered as refugees, while another 8,80,000 have legal status to stay. But Pakistan’s Interior Ministry says some 1.7 million people are staying “illegally”, a vast majority of them Afghans. At least 6,00,000 Afghans are believed to have fled to Pakistan after the Taliban recaptured power in Kabul in 2021. Many others had moved during the Soviet military intervention in the 1980s. Pakistan’s order states that they should either leave on their own or face detention and deportation. Pakistan has already set up deportation centres to round up “illegal” migrants and deport them. Thousands are now stranded on the Afghan-Pakistan border, while others are in fear of arrest and violence in Pakistan, leading to the UN’s warning of a “humanitarian tragedy”.
Pakistan’s argument is that the presence of illegal migrants has led to rising crime and terror attacks and is straining its struggling economy. “There have been 24 suicide bomb attacks since January this year and 14 of them were carried out by Afghan nationals,” interim Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti said on October 3, when he announced the deportation plan. Pakistan, which is to have its national elections in January, is also reeling under hyperinflation, a balance of payment crisis and high rupee depreciation. But the solution to these woes is not the forceful deportation of 1.7 million people. The responsibility for most of the problems Pakistan now faces lies with its rulers. When its military and civilian leadership continued to play power games, trying to outwit each other and maximise powers in their hands, its economy was neglected. The security crisis it is facing today is a result of its own dual policy on terror — fighting some outfits while supporting others. When the Taliban, which were backed by Pakistan’s military-intelligence establishment, recaptured power in August 2021, it was largely seen then as a victory for Pakistan’s generals. But the security crisis Pakistan is facing now suggests that the sense of victory did not last long. Skirmishes along the porous Af-Pak border are also common these days. What Pakistan is doing is scapegoating tens of thousands of poor Afghan refugees for the failures of its own policies.