The Unsettling Ethics of Pakistan’s Decision to Forcibly Return Afghan Families in Winter Commentary
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The Unsettling Ethics of Pakistan’s Decision to Forcibly Return Afghan Families in Winter
Edited by: JURIST Staff

Correction: This article has been amended to reflect the fact that Pakistan is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention. 

Pakistan cannot forcibly remove Afghan refugees residing in the country, as doing so would violate their right to non-refoulement and potentially expose them to harm.

Asefa, an Afghan refugee living in Torkham port, fled from Afghanistan with her family 36 years ago. Recently, the Pakistani government has begun arresting and deporting Afghan refugees, compelling Asefa to abandon the home she built and hastily gather her belongings.

“I had to leave Afghanistan to ensure my family’s survival amidst the war and to provide a better future for my children,” said Asefa. “Now, I am compelled to return to Afghanistan, where I have no connections, as all our families and relatives were deported from Pakistan.”

The 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as someone unwilling or unable to return to their home country due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Since the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan, followed by civil wars, Taliban rule in the 1990s, and their recent return to power in 2021, many Afghans have sought refuge in neighboring countries, with Pakistan and Iran hosting the largest Afghan refugee populations.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports approximately 4 million Afghans in Pakistan, including around 1.7 million undocumented individuals. Another source indicates 1.3 million registered Afghans and 880,000 with legal status to stay in Pakistan. However, recent orders from Pakistan mandate the expulsion of all undocumented people, encompassing approximately 1.7 million Afghans.

Last winter, extreme cold in Afghanistan, with temperatures dropping to -34 Celsius, resulted in at least 70 human deaths and the loss of 77,000 animals. The country is currently grappling with a severe humanitarian crisis, with 15.8 million people, including 2.8 million in an emergency situation, facing severe food insecurity in 2023, according to a joint report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP).

Deporting Afghan refugees back to Afghanistan in these dire circumstances is tantamount to a death sentence. While the Taliban regime claims to have established temporary camps on their side of the border to provide shelter, food, healthcare, and other services, the ability of this regime to manage the crisis remains uncertain.

Many Afghan refugees fled to Pakistan in pursuit of a better future for their children through education, particularly after the Taliban’s takeover in 2021, which included a ban on schooling for female students. The Ministry of Higher Education in Afghanistan has promised higher education opportunities for returning students based on their educational background, but the fate of female students and teachers remains unclear.

The decision by Pakistan to expel thousands of Afghan refugees during the approaching winter has drawn criticism from the Taliban government in Afghanistan, the U.N., and global rights groups. Concerns have been raised about the potential for returnees to face retribution and abuses by Taliban authorities.

*This commentary was written by an Afghan legal scholar whose identity cannot currently be revealed due to threats to their security.

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