Pakistan’s Forced Deportation of Afghan Refugees: A Violation of Human Rights and International Law Commentary
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Pakistan’s Forced Deportation of Afghan Refugees: A Violation of Human Rights and International Law
Edited by: JURIST Staff

Last month, Pakistan’s caretaker government issued an ultimatum to all undocumented immigrants, including some 1.73 Afghan nationals: leave the country voluntarily, or face expulsion.

The deadline was Nov. 1.

Since the announcement, over 86,000 undocumented Afghan nationals, including women and children have returned to their country, presumably to avoid arrest.

Pakistan, a country that hosts nearly 2.4 million Afghan refugees, including the 600,000 who fled in 2021 due to the Taliban takeover, has launched a full-scale crackdown against undocumented immigrants. Although government officials have claimed that the crackdown applies to all undocumented immigrants, regardless of nationality, and that it in no way targets Afghans, their statement holds little credibility since the majority of refugees and immigrants in Pakistan are Afghan nationals. Furthermore, the government justified its policy, citing growing security concerns, and claiming that Afghan nationals were responsible for 14 of 24 suicide attacks carried out in Pakistan this year.

As per government orders, anyone now found residing in Pakistan without the appropriate documents will be arrested and moved to a deportation center. Pakistan’s caretaker Interior Minister, Sarfraz Bugti assured the public that undocumented migrants subject to arrest would not be mistreated, and claimed that all basic necessities would be provided to detainees awaiting deportation.

Despite the government’s assurances that all undocumented immigrants will be treated with dignity, history tells a different story. This is not the first time the government has ordered the mass deportation of Afghans. In 2016, Pakistani authorities engaged in a campaign to forcibly expel nearly 600,000 Afghans, 365,000 of whom were registered refugees. Numerous reports from human rights organizations detailed the rampant abuse of power exercised by Pakistan’s police force. The Human Rights Watch (HRW) referred to the exodus as ‘the world’s largest unlawful mass forced return of refugees in recent times.’

The latest calls for mass deportation by the caretaker government has led to a surge of abuse by law enforcement officials against Afghans. Contrary to the government’s narrative of only rounding up undocumented individuals in a lawful manner, Afghan refugees and human rights activists claim that the arrests have been indiscriminate. The police force has been accused of arbitrarily detaining refugees, conducting police raids, harassment, and extortion. Even registered  Afghans are not immune from the threat of detention or deportation. HRW reported that Afghans face arrest regardless of having a valid visa or Proof of Registration (PoR) card, and in most cases are forced to pay  bribes to get released.

Even children have been targeted under the government’s deportation policy. Since July of 2022, hundreds of undocumented  children have been detained by Pakistani authorities. On the 31st of October, Human rights lawyer Moniza Kakar took to ‘X’ to express her outrage over  a group of young Afghan boys who were arrested from their school and held for 45 days in prison after which they were produced before the City Court in Karachi. The children were charged under the Foreigners Act 1946 and subsequently convicted, facing one month of rigorous imprisonment before facing deportation. Kakar criticised the manner in which the boys were treated, stating that the court and law enforcement officials were treating the children like hardened criminals, and argued that the Court had unjustly convicted them, and violated their fundamental rights.

The government has also employed other coercive tactics such as destroying refugee camps and confiscating property, in a bid to drive Afghans out of the country. Mir Ahmad Rauf, head of the Afghan Refugees’ Council in Pakistan stated that “In Islamabad particularly in B-17, in Karachi and in other areas of Pakistan they are destroying houses of Afghans and even their personal belongings are being confiscated.”

Those refugees who have decided to return to Afghanistan to avoid arrest have described the treatment at the border crossing as highly demoralizing. Local news outlets have reported that authorities have barred Afghan migrants from taking cattle and other personal property across the border. As per government orders, Afghan refugees were only allowed to carry 50,000 rupees per family (178 USD), when leaving the country. Thus, refugees who have managed to establish businesses in Pakistan are forced to leave their livelihoods behind, which effectively deprives them of a chance at economic stability upon returning to Afghanistan.

The government’s announcement of forced deportation caused absolute chaos throughout the month of October. Despite numerous pledges to carry out the repatriation process in a lawful and dignified manner, the government’s actions against Afghan refugees can only be described as shameful and dehumanizing. Only this past Monday, Afghan refugees, including women and children were packed into a container like livestock, when the container overturned resulting in two deaths and numerous others injured.

Furthermore, Afghan refugees who ‘illegally’ reside in the country are not undocumented due to some nefarious plot to leech off the country’s resources or wreak havoc on the State. It is due to the excruciatingly long and difficult process of obtaining a PoR card from the UNHCR, coupled with continuous delays by the Pakistani government in issuing visas. One asylum seeker told Amnesty International that he contacted the UNHCR in order to obtain a PoR card in 2021, provided his biometrics nearly 9 months after, and yet he still has not received his official registration card. The inadequacy of the current registration system leaves refugees susceptible to harassment and extortion by law enforcement officials, landlords, and employers. It also impedes their chances of gaining economic stability as they cannot set up a bank account or seek employment. Afghan’s who have not received their PoR cards are forced to work low wage jobs and are often exploited by their employers.

The interim government’s decision to expel undocumented immigrants from Pakistan received widespread backlash from international human rights organizations and human rights activists within Pakistan. Both Amnesty International and HRW have urged Pakistan to seize the deportation of Afghan Refugees and to uphold their rights under international law so they may live with dignity and without the fear of deportation. UN Human Rights Office Spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani also urged Pakistan to halt deportations. She stated that Afghans facing deportation are at grave risk of human rights violations if they’re forced to return. She highlighted the individuals who were at immediate risk upon return; including journalists, human rights activists, security force members, and placed particular emphasis on women and girls.

In response to growing concerns by human rights organizations and the UN, Mumtaz Zahra Baloch, Pakistan’s foreign office spokesperson, defended the government’s right to deport ‘illegal’ immigrants, stating that “The decision is in exercise of Pakistan’s sovereign domestic laws, and compliant with applicable international norms and principles.” This however, is not entirely true. Although a country has a right to deport undocumented immigrants, the manner in which Afghan migrants and refugees were expelled from the country violated numerous human right conventions, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Although Pakistan has not ratified the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, nor its 1967 Protocol, it is still bound by a tripartite agreement executed with Afghanistan and the UNHCR in 2003, which grants Afghan refugees rights and privileges, and facilitates the voluntary repatriation of refugees. Furthermore, the country has ratified numerous human rights conventions that provide countless political, economic and social protections to all individuals, including refugees, who are under the control of the State. Thus, even Afghan refugees who reside within Pakistan are entitled to certain international legal protections. Pakistan’s forceful expulsion of Afghan refugees is in direct contravention to the customary international law principle of non-refoulement. The principle of non-refoulement forbids the return or expulsion of asylum seekers to a state where they may be at risk of persecution. The principle of non refoulement is also enshrined in Article 2(1) of the Convention Against Torture, to which Pakistan is a party to.

The government’s disgraceful treatment of Afghan nationals correlates with growing security concerns as the country has witnessed a surge in terrorist attacks perpetrated by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Pakistan’s security agencies have struggled to contain the threat. Government officials on the other hand have accused  the Afghan Taliban of not only harboring the group but allowing them to use Afghan soil to launch  attacks against Pakistan. Foreign Office spokesperson Mumtaz Zahra Baloch in a press conference linked recent terrorist incidents with elements inside Afghanistan.

Following the TTP’s decision to end its ceasefire with Pakistan last year, the group has launched numerous attacks, with more than 300 of them taking place in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa this year  alone. The government’s decision to crackdown on Afghan nationals came on the heels of  the twin blasts that took place on the 29th of September in Mastung and Hangu city, which claimed the lives of more than 60 people. Thus, the policy to deport Afghan refugees seems to be a direct  result of Islamabad’s deteriorating relationship with Kabul.

Linking growing security concerns and an increase of terrorist activity with the presence of refugees is a dangerous precedent to set. It allows Nation States to act with impunity and violate the rights of refugees under the guise of national security. Even if the Afghan Taliban have provided refuge to the TTP, Afghans should not be punished for the actions of the very government they fled from.

It is also important to note that Pakistan’s interventionist policy in Afghanistan has played a role in the reemergence of the TTP. During the fall of Kabul, Pakistan backed the Afghan Taliban, with the hopes of having a dependent pro-Pakistan regime in Kabul. Politicians and military officials alike considered the victory a strategic win. However, Pakistan’s interventionist policy in Afghanistan has significantly backfired. The fall of Kabul inadvertently resulted in the resurgence of the TTP, who have historically shared close ideological and operational ties with the Afghan Taliban.

The forceful expulsion of over a million Afghans not only violates international law but may also trigger a wide scale humanitarian crisis. For many Afghan refugees, the government’s repatriation policy means they must ‘return’ to a country they have never lived in – for them Pakistan has been their only home, with families who have lived here for three generations. On the other hand, to force those who recently fled the Taliban to return to Afghanistan where they face the imminent risk of persecution and repression illustrates Pakistan’s flagrant disregard for the fundamental rights of Afghans. Rather than taking meaningful steps to combat rising militancy and strengthening security measures, the interim government chose to introduce a reactionary policy which collectively punishes the most vulnerable segments of society. Afghan refugees are being used as scapegoats for the government’s own security failures. However, forcefully expelling the people who have sought refuge in Pakistan will not be a panacea for Pakistan’s woes. To echo the words of the associate Asia director at HRW, Patricia Gossman, Afghans in Pakistan are once again being used as ‘a political football kicked back and forth between two countries with little regard for their rights.’

Rabia Shuja holds an LLM in International Human Rights Law from Griffith College, Dublin and is Chief Correspondent for JURIST in Pakistan. She reports from Islamabad.

Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.