Pakistan gives thousands of Afghans just days to leave — or face deportation back to the Taliban's Afghanistan

UniqueThis 33 October 4, 2023

Pakistan's government has given hundreds of thousands of Afghan nationals who fled the Taliban's harsh rule at home and sought refuge inside Pakistan until the first of November to leave, warning that "all illegal alien nationals" still in the country after that date will face arrest and deportation. 

Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti gave the eviction notice during a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, noting a spike in militant attacks inside Pakistan since the Afghan Taliban reclaimed control over Afghanistan in the summer of 2021. Tension between the neighbors, which has been high for decades, has only escalated since that change in power.

Afghan refugees in Pakistan

Qaiser Khan Afridi, the U.N. Refugee Agency spokesman in Pakistan, told CBS News there were approximately 2.2 million Afghans registered as refugees in Pakistan before the change of power in 2021, and he said about 700,000 more had come to Pakistan since then.

Bugti claimed Tuesday that some 1.7 million Afghans were in Pakistan without permission, and it's that group now facing the Nov. 1 deadline.

"If they do not go, then all the law enforcement agencies in the provinces or federal government will be utilized to deport them," Bugti said at a press conference in Islamabad.

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Afghan refugees board a bus in Karachi, Pakistan, to return to Afghanistan, Sept. 21, 2023. RIZWAN TABASSUM/AFP/Getty

Afridi told CBS News that Pakistan had been "a generous refugee host for decades," and he called on the international community to support Islamabad, "to match its generosity."

But he added that "any refugee return must be voluntary, without any pressure, to ensure protection for those seeking safety."

He said UNHCR stood ready to support Pakistan "in developing a mechanism to manage and register people in need of international protection on its territory and respond to particular vulnerabilities."

According to the Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies (PICSS), there were at least 271 militant attacks in Pakistan during the first half of 2023 alone, most of them targeting Pakistani security forces. The organization says that represents a 79% year-on-year increase.

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Security officials examine the site of a suicide bomb attack targeting a procession marking the birthday of Islam's Prophet Mohammed in Mastung district, Baluchistan, Pakistan, Sept. 29, 2023. AFP via Getty

Islamabad has long accused the Afghan Taliban — Afghanistan's de-facto government since August 2021 — of supporting the umbrella Islamic extremist group Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), often referred to as the Pakistani Taliban. Those militants have stepped up their attacks in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan in recent years.

Bugti claimed that most of the terrorist attacks in Pakistan have been carried out by Afghan nationals. He said 14 of the 24 suicide bombers who have struck this year in Pakistan alone were Afghan nationals.

"Throwing meat at a hungry dog"

Yacob Shah, 44, is an Afghan refugee who runs a shop in the northwest Pakistani city of Peshawar. He was born in a refugee camp in Pakistan during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan decades ago and has never been to Afghanistan, but without documentation, he is now one of the people facing deportation.

"If Pakistan expels me, I will come back," Shah, who was married in Pakistan and has seven grandchildren, all born in the country, told CBS News. "If they do it again, then I will try to move to Europe."

Afghan refugees with permission to be in the country have also spoken of unwarranted harassment, even imprisonment at the hands of Pakistani authorities.

Mohammad Qasim and his son Abdul Jalil are registered as refugees in Pakistan, but Qasim told CBS News that as he slept at his home one evening in an Islamabad suburb, police "broke down the door and detained me."

"I had all the paperwork, but they still arrested me and threw me in jail and humiliated me. I was later released by the judge on bail," Qasim said, but he added that when his son came to ask the police why he had been detained, "they arrested him on the spot as well."

CBS News has seen both Qasim's refugee documentation, issued by Pakistani authorities, and a police report claiming he was detained for violating immigration laws.

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Afghan refugee sisters Khushi Mehtab, left and Asma Ayar, 28, practice their music in the one-room apartment they share with their younger brother in Islamabad, Pakistan, during a May 2023 interview with CBS News. CBS News

A European Union diplomat in Islamabad, speaking with CBS News on the condition of anonymity, equated the Pakistani government's plan to deport undocumented Afghans who fled life under the Taliban back to Afghanistan to "throwing meat at a hungry dog."

"Pakistan blaming the terrorism on the poor Afghans who escaped from the Taliban is a joke," the diplomat said, accusing officials in Islamabad of "making decisions based on emotions rather than logic."

One former Afghan army commando, who escaped his country with a six-month Pakistani visa that has now expired, told CBS News: "If they send me back, I will be arrested, and they will certainly torture me."

An Afghan women's rights activist who escaped to Pakistan after the Taliban's takeover and is currently waiting for her asylum application to be processed said her pending status left her worried that she could be subject to deportation in November.

"Afghan refugees fear being affected by Pakistan's decision to deport Afghans," Munisa Mubariz told CBS News. "They are the Afghans whose lives have been at risk, were persecuted, tortured and jailed by the Taliban regime — most of them are former soldiers, civil society activists, women's and human rights activists and Afghans used to work with U.S. and Western forces."

Taliban decries plan for "humiliating deportations"

Zabihullah Mujahid, the Afghan government's chief spokesman, labeled the Pakistani government's plan "unacceptable" and called on Islamabad to change course.

"The behavior of Pakistan against Afghan refugees is unacceptable," he said in a post on social media. "The Pakistani side should reconsider its plan. Afghan refugees are not involved in Pakistan's security problems. As long as they leave Pakistan voluntarily, that country should tolerate them."

The Taliban regime's Deputy Foreign Minister Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai told CBS News Wednesday that Kabul would welcome any Afghans back home, but he condemned Pakistan's plan to forcibly deport people.

"The decision of the Pakistani government is considered unfair and impolite," he said. "No doubt Afghans should come to Afghanistan, but Pakistan should avoid and refrain from forced, unreasonable and humiliating deportations of Afghans refugees."

"During 45 years of Afghans living in Pakistan, they have never been involved in any security problem," the Taliban official told CBS News. "How have poor Afghan refugees suddenly become a threat to Pakistani security? Obviously, by expelling Afghans, Pakistan wants to start a period of enmity with Afghans and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan."

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Afghan refugees are seen at the Torkham border crossing between Pakistan and Afghanistan, in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan, May 4, 2023. Aimal Zahir/Xinhua/Getty

Top Taliban officials in Afghanistan's eastern Nangarhar Province, just east of Kabul on the Pakistani border, held an emergency meeting Wednesday about Pakistan's plans.

The provincial director of migration affairs, Haji Baz Muhammad, urged charity organizations to be ready to provide assistance to any families sent back to the country from Pakistan.