Pakistan should reconsider forced repatriation of Afghan refugees


Many Afghan refugees have been living in Pakistan for more than four decades. The mass migration of Afghans to neighboring Pakistan began in 1978 when the Communist regime came to power in a bloody coup.

The flow of Afghans into Pakistan further intensified with the former Soviet occupation of the country in December 1979.

Although a significant number of Afghans have repatriated, about two million have preferred to stay, making Pakistan their second home. In general, Afghans look at Pakistan, especially its people, with a sense of gratitude for hosting them for decades. Except for some rare incidents, no major tensions or conflicts between the local population and Afghans have been witnessed during this period, which is unique in the history of refugees in such large numbers.

With the collapse of the former Afghan government in August 2021 and the Taliban’s takeover, about 800,000 Afghans, according to a UNHCR report, have arrived in Pakistan, most of them without documentation. A substantial number of Afghans, although in the minority, come to Pakistan with proper visas and documentation. It is worth noting, though, that obtaining a Pakistani visa for Afghans is extremely challenging. Most visa applications are rejected without any particular reason. Getting Pakistani visas is now possible through third-party channels with associated costs not affordable for the majority of Afghans. It is true that a significant number of Afghans who crossed the border into Pakistan post-Taliban did so for economic reasons. Yet, a substantial number among these are those seeking medical treatment or fearing persecution by the Taliban authorities due to their past association with the former Afghan government or a work history with the U.S. or other Western governments. There are also those who come simply to visit family members in Pakistan.

The former caretaker government of Pakistan was extremely resolute in implementing the so-called Illegal Foreigners’ Repatriation Plan. Although the plan was named generically to include all foreigners, it was obvious that it was designed specifically for targeting Afghans. According to Amnesty International, about half a million Afghan refugees have returned to Afghanistan since then. The elected government in Pakistan is now set to initiate the next phase of the plan that will endanger about 800,000 Afghan Citizen Card holders and some 1.3 million UNHCR-issued Proof of Registration holders. Afghans in both categories are considered to have legal refugee status per Pakistan’s own rules. Therefore, any move by the authorities to deport the refugees will be considered arbitrary and in violation of international norms.

Pakistan is not a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention related to the status of refugees. Thus, it can deport undocumented foreigners when it decides so. Yet, it has obligations under international customary law where the principle of non-refoulement prevents states from forcefully returning those fearing persecution in their countries of origin. Since the Taliban’s takeover in August 2021, thousands of Afghans have left the country for neighboring Pakistan, waiting for their asylum applications to be processed, especially by the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and several European governments.

Pakistan claims its decision to no longer host so-called illegal migrants is due to an increasing wave of violence and terrorist activities. However, there is hardly any evidence that Afghan refugees were involved in any criminal or terrorist activity on Pakistani soil. White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby announced in a press briefing in July 2023 that there was no indication that Afghan refugees in Pakistan were guilty of acts of terrorism. Thus, the move by the Pakistani authorities seems to be politically motivated rather than out of any genuine threats from the refugees.

It is also important to highlight how much the Afghan refugees have contributed to Pakistan in terms of economic dividends, cheap labor, increased cultural exchange, and better understanding among the two neighboring nations. Afghan entrepreneurs have invested millions of dollars in Pakistan that have benefited the local populations. The continuous flow of remittances, especially from the U.S. and other Western countries to the Afghan refugees, is another example of positive economic impact. Afghan refugees pay exorbitant rents to the local homeowners, especially in the capital Islamabad and other metropolitan cities. Afghan refugees have never been a burden on the Pakistani economy; instead, they have been positive contributors.

Overall, Pakistan has generously hosted Afghan refugees for decades, and it would be unfair not to acknowledge this. Nevertheless, recent measures threaten to undo the positive impact of this four-decade-long generosity. The Pakistani government should reconsider its proposed plan of mandatory repatriation, as it could result in lasting ramifications for the relationship between the two neighboring countries.

The author is Vice-President of the Afghanistan Social Democratic Party. He served as a Deputy Minister in the former Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. He tweets @ajmshams.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Amu website.