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‘Nothing out there for us’: Afghan refugees begin reluctant exodus after Pakistan eviction order

October 5, 2023 at 2:50 pm

In this photo taken on 21 September 2023, Afghan children play at an Afghan refugee camp in Karachi [RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP via Getty Images]

Saeedullah waved goodbye to his friends as he boarded a bus taking over 150 Afghan refugees to Pakistan’s south-western Chaman border crossing with Afghanistan.

He is one of the thousands of Afghan refugees who have either started or are planning to return to their homeland following Islamabad’s decision to evict what it says are over 1 million “illegal immigrants”.

Islamabad has set 1 November as the deadline for all undocumented migrants, mainly Afghans, to voluntarily leave the country, warning of arrests and deportations after that date.

“I am not leaving by choice but I have no other option. I don’t want to be arrested or face any humiliation,” Saeedullah, a father of five, told Anadolu.

Hailing from Afghanistan’s north-eastern Takhar province, Saeedullah came to Pakistan days before the US invasion of Afghanistan after the11 September terror attacks.

In Karachi, a crowded refugee camp became his new home.

READ: Taliban condemns Pakistan plan to evict Afghan nationals as ‘unacceptable’

Saeedullah was teaching at a local madrasa, or religious seminary, until last week.

He lost his status as a legal immigrant in 2012 as Pakistani authorities refused to renew his Afghan refugee card.

I don’t know what I’ll do back in Afghanistan. There is nothing out there for us. But at least there’s no fear of arrests or deportation back there

he said.

“And there’s no longer the threat of violence,” he added.

Since the Taliban returned to power over two years ago, Afghanistan has been facing grave economic challenges.

Currently, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, a record 28.3 million people depend on humanitarian and protection assistance in the country, up from 24.4 million in 2022 and 18.4 million in 2021.

Latest UN figures show some 1.3 million Afghans are registered refugees in Pakistan, while another 880,000 have legal status to stay in the country.

According to Pakistan’s caretaker Interior Minister, Sarfraz Bugti, over 1.7 million Afghan refugees are not registered with the government.

Most of the Afghan refugees live in the north-western Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and south-western Balochistan provinces, which border Afghanistan.

The southern Sindh province, with Karachi as its capital, also hosts some 500,000 Afghan refugees.

‘Reign of fear’

In a room at a refugee camp in Karachi, a group of Afghan nationals were discussing Islamabad’s eviction plan, uncertainty visible on their faces even in the dim light.

Nestled on the northern outskirts of Pakistan’s commercial hub and most populous city, this rundown locality with limited healthcare services and basic sanitation is home to nearly 250,000 Afghan refugees who were forced to flee their country due to a series of conflicts over the past four decades.

Rahimullah, an elder of the Afghan refugee community, said police had “unleashed an indiscriminate reign of arrests much before the government’s eviction announcement.”

READ: UN opposes Pakistan plan to evict ‘illegal immigrants’

“We haven’t been going out of the camp for over a month, not even for work,” he told Anadolu.

“I was just at the local police station trying to get them to release several Afghan youths they detained yesterday. They were detained despite having all the legal documents,” he said, as the others nodded along.

Nearly 2,000 Afghans, including 700 in Karachi, have been arrested since early September in a crackdown on undocumented migrants, according to police figures.

Rahimullah put the number at 1,300 for Karachi alone over the past one month.

According to a statement from Afghanistan’s department for refugee affairs, some 23,000 Afghans have been expelled by Pakistan in the past 20 days. Islamabad has not issued any figures from its side nor commented on the Afghan statement.

We made Karachi our home 40 years ago when my father migrated from Afghanistan. I have studied here, married here and all of my 10 children were born here. They don’t know anything about Afghanistan

said Rahimullah.

Confirming that an exodus has already started due to the ongoing crackdown, he said another batch of 600 refugees is set to leave for Afghanistan on Thursday.

“For the past few weeks, five to six buses packed with refugees have been leaving Pakistan every day,” he said, adding that the numbers will likely increase over the coming days.

“I have legal status here. As long as they (authorities) allow, I will stay here. If they deport me, what choice would I have?” Rahimullah, a prayer leader at a local mosque, said with a helpless smile on his bearded face.

Authorities, however, deny the charges. Tariq Mastoi, a senior police officer in Karachi, told Anadolu that only undocumented migrants are being taken into custody, while those with legal documents are not being targeted.

The same message was reiterated by the Pakistani Foreign Ministry on Thursday, with spokesperson Mumtaz Zehra Baloch stressing that the country will continue to host legal Afghan immigrants.

The eviction plan is only for undocumented people, and Afghan refugees with legal status do not need to worry, Baloch said at a weekly news briefing in Islamabad.

Islamabad police also released an update on Thursday saying more than 1,100 people “were screened during operations against illegal foreign nationals.”

READ: Pakistan to evict over 1m illegal immigrants – State media

The statement said 503 people “had no documents of any kind” and “are on judicial remand and facing charges”, while “623 were released after presenting approved identification documents.”

‘Poor refugees paying the price’ for politics

Pakistan alleges that some Afghan refugees have been involved in “funding and facilitating” terrorist activities in the country.

Out of the 24 suicide bombings on security installations and civilian targets in Pakistan this year, 14 involved suicide bombers who were Afghan nationals, according to Pakistani authorities.

However, Hameed Mustafa, a young Afghan refugee, argued that “poor refugees are paying the price” for deteriorating relations between Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban.

Islamabad accuses Afghanistan’s Taliban government of “mentoring” terrorists loyal to the outlawed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terror group, who have claimed responsibility for several of the recent deadly attacks.

Kabul, for its part, denies the charges and has reportedly launched a crackdown on the TTP in the eastern Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nuristan, arresting approximately 200 terrorists.

“Who is stopping the government from going after these miscreants? We fully support any action against them,” Habib told Anadolu.

“But what have we done? We have been living here peacefully? Why are we being scapegoated?”

Dual threat

The UN and several global human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have opposed Pakistan’s eviction plan, saying it will put a number of Afghans at risk, particularly the minority Hazara community that fled because of alleged persecution by the Taliban.

According to official government estimates, over 600,000 Afghans have arrived in Pakistan seeking asylum since the Taliban returned to power.

READ: ‘Kindness can change lives’: Afghan refugee gives back as successful UK doctor

“Unlike Pashtuns, who face only an economic threat, we have the additional risk to our lives if we go back to Afghanistan,” Murtaza Kohzad, a refugee from the Shia Hazara community of the northern Kunduz province, told Anadolu.

“Are they sending us back to die?” he pleaded.

A spokesperson for Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry rejected the claims of persecution and threats to particular groups.

“This is mere propaganda from those elements who have run away from the country and now want foreign citizenship or asylum by playing this victim card,” a spokesperson, who did not want to be named, said in a message to Anadolu.

Hazara or other communities living in Afghanistan have no complaints against the Taliban government, he said, arguing that elders and religious scholars of the Hazara community have excellent relations with the Taliban.

An official of Pakistan’s Interior Ministry also dismissed the criticism coming from the UN and rights groups.

Pakistan is acting within its “legal and constitutional rights to deport illegal immigrants who are posing a threat to the country’s security,” the official told Anadolu, requesting anonymity as he was not allowed to speak to the media.

“Which country on earth supports illegal immigration?” he said, adding that, in his opinion, the decision has been “taken late”.

“This plan is only for illegal immigrants. Those living here with legal documents don’t need to worry.”

READ: We must not lose our own humanity in addressing the plight of refugees

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