Islamabad (AP) — The government of Pakistan declared a significant operation on Tuesday targeting undocumented migrants within the country, stating that it would begin deportations next month. This announcement has raised concerns among foreign nationals without proper documentation, including an estimated 1.7 million Afghans.
The caretaker Interior Minister of the country, Sarfraz Bugti, emphasized that the crackdown was not specifically targeting Afghans but would apply to all nationalities, even though the majority of undocumented migrants in the country are Afghans.
This campaign has been initiated amidst strained relations between Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan, which is now under Taliban leadership. Pakistan has accused Taliban-allied militants of conducting attacks within its borders and taking refuge in Afghanistan.
Bugti urged all migrants in Pakistan without proper documentation to voluntarily return to their home countries before the end of October to avoid mass arrests and forced deportations. The government also plans to seize the property and assets of illegal migrants and establish a special phone line for the public to report such migrants.
Zabihullah Mujahid, the chief spokesman for the Taliban government, expressed his opposition to Pakistan’s plans, stating that Afghan refugees are not involved in Pakistan’s security problems and should be tolerated as long as they leave voluntarily.
While Pakistani authorities have previously arrested and deported undocumented Afghans, this represents the first major crackdown on illegal immigration formally announced by the government.
This significant shift in immigration policy during a caretaker government, typically intended to govern during transitional periods between National Assembly terms, is unusual. Caretaker Prime Minister Anwaarul-Haq-Kakar took office in August and is expected to remain in power until elections scheduled for the end of January.
The government stated that this new migration policy was endorsed during a high-level meeting among Pakistan’s political leadership and its powerful military.
A 57-year-old Afghan fruit seller in Peshawar, Fazal Rehman, who has been in Pakistan for 30 years, expressed concerns about the hasty expulsion and requested more time to either peacefully live in Pakistan or arrange for a return to Afghanistan.
Pakistan has long been a refuge for Afghan refugees since the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, resulting in one of the world’s largest refugee populations. Even after the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, many Afghans remain in Pakistan, with an estimated 1.7 million of them unregistered.
According to Bugti, Afghans who have registered with Pakistani authorities need not worry about the crackdown. Some 2.4 million Afghans in Pakistan have refugee status, which allows them to obtain government ID cards for everyday activities.
Despite the Taliban’s call for Afghan refugees to return after their takeover, many have opted to stay in Pakistan or seek opportunities to emigrate to other countries, including the United States.
Zahid Hussain, an independent Islamabad-based journalist-turned-analyst, speculated that the policy shift may be influenced by Afghan involvement in recent terrorist attacks on Pakistani soil. He expressed skepticism about the feasibility of detaining or expelling 1.7 million unregistered Afghan migrants and anticipated further strain on relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The outlawed Pakistani Taliban, known as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP, has claimed responsibility for attacks on Pakistani security forces in the past. However, they distanced themselves from two recent suicide bombings that occurred within hours of each other, killing 59 people in areas bordering Afghanistan. No group has claimed responsibility for these attacks.
Afghan officials contend that Pakistan is targeting Afghan refugees regardless of their documentation status, and the Afghan Embassy in Islamabad called for a halt to such operations due to their negative impact on bilateral relations.
Pakistani authorities have not provided details of recent arrests or the charges faced by suspects in recent weeks.
Another Afghan refugee, Raees Khan, who has been in Peshawar since 2007, expressed concerns about the short timeframe for winding down his business and relocating his family. He, too, called for an extension of the deadline to allow for a more manageable return to Afghanistan.