Why Pakistan is expelling 1.7 million Afghans now? Several factors at play, says expert
Pakistan has seen a surge in terror activities on its soil and its caretaker administration has said that “14 out of 24” suicide bombings this year was carried out by people from Afghanistan.
A Pakistani soldier patrols as stranded people wait for the reopening of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border crossing point which was closed by the authorities, in Chaman, Pakistan, on August 7, 2021, after the Taliban took control of the Afghan border town in a rapid offensive across the country. (Photo by ASGHAR ACHAKZAI/AFP via Getty Images)
IN a development that is likely to worsen an already tense relationship, security forces in Pakistan have begun detaining and deporting several thousands of undocumented foreigners after a deadline for unregistered Afghan refugees in the country to leave passed on Thursday (1). More than 1.7 million Afghan nationals in Pakistan are facing deportation.
The crackdown has hurt the Afghans the most since they constitute the majority of foreigners residing in Pakistan although its caretaker government has said that all those who are living in the country illegally are under the scanner.
The move has given rise to a humanitarian crisis since many of the returning Afghans, who had arrived in Pakistan in poor conditions, have nowhere to return and agencies have expressed fear about survival of people and reintegration of a country which has been crippled by natural and man-made disasters, including earthquakes, war, economic hardship and internal displacement.
The two countries share a border running more than 2,600 kilometres and ties rocked by political and other problems.
The Pakistani government announced its plan to deport the undocumented migrants and refugees last month.
But why did Islamabad take such a step at this time?
According to Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center, a Washington-based think tank, and a specialist on Afghanistan, Pakistan and India and their relations with the US, there are several factors responsible for the development.
In a post on X, he said, “Several factors at play: Severe economic stress and resurgent terror offer powerful pretexts. A caretaker government is in power that will face no political backlash because it is apolitical. And it’s not about to defy the army-the plan’s likely initiator-to which it is beholden.”
The Taliban rulers of Afghanistan have protested against Pakistan’s decision and besides urging Islamabad to give the Afghans more time, also warned of taking strong action against it.
The situation is so tense that people in Kabul engaged in a rare celebration when Afghanistan defeated Pakistan in a match in the ongoing World Cup in India and Afghanistan batter Ibrahim Zadran, who was judged the player of the match, also dedicated the victory to those Afghans deported from Pakistan.
Pakistan is currently going through a challenging phase. While it is battling economic hardships, the resurgence in terror attacks on its soil has threatened its security. Caretaker interior minister Sarfraz Bugti said in October that “14 out of 24” suicide bombings in Pakistan this year was carried out by people from Afghanistan.
The majority of attacks in Pakistan have taken place in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the southwestern province of Balochistan, both of which have borders with the land-locked Afghanistan.
Islamabad has alleged time and again that the Afghan Taliban shelter fighters belonging to the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which is ideologically aligned with the Taliban in the neighbouring country.
Afghanistan’s interim government led by the Taliban, who gained control of the country in 2021 after the western forces withdrew, had first urged the Pakistani government to reconsider its move.
Government spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid had said on X last month that Afghan refugees are not involved in Pakistan’s security problems and that Pakistan “should tolerate them”.
Pakistan, on its part, sent a high-level delegation to Afghanistan for negotiations — the second such visit in 2023 — and urged the Afghan Taliban to make border controls strict.
Pakistan has carried out similar operations in the past but with limited success.
According to estimates, over 95 per cent of refugees in Pakistan, both documented and undocumented, are Afghan nationals.
The first influx of refugees started after the invasion of Afghanistan by the erstwhile Soviet Union in 1979 that saw more than three million Afghans fleeing to Pakistan. Many of them returned home over the years.
A second wave took place in 2001 when the US invaded Afghanistan after the September 11 terror attacks on its soil.
A report released in July by Refugees International said more than 600,000 Afghans have fled to Pakistan since the Taliban’s return to power in 2021.