• Fate of millions of Afghan migrants, as well as those awaiting visas, still uncertain
• Officials note lack of concrete plan to handle massive undertaking
• Afghan Taliban oppose Pakistan’s swift repatriation plan, urge review

PESHAWAR: With a looming deadline to repatriate more than a million undocumented Afghans and other foreigners by the end of this month, federal and provincial authorities are scrambling to put together a viable plan to undertake what could safely be described as one of the biggest deportation operations in modern times.

Following up on the recommendations of the apex committee of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on Sept 27, the federal apex committee on Tuesday set an ultimatum to all undocumented immigrants, including a proportionately large number of Afghans, to leave by Oct 31 or face imprisonment and deportation.

The short deadline has caused ripples in the Afghan community across the country, more than half of whom reside in KP, including the merged tribal districts. The decision also drew a sharp reaction on Wednesday from the Afghan Taliban chief spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, who has described Pakistan’s “behaviour” towards Afghan refugees as “unacceptable” and urged Islamabad to reconsider its plan.

Background interviews with officials involved in the process revealed that authorities were struggling to put together a plan to repatriate an unspecified number of illegal immigrants, mostly Afghans.

“This is a huge undertaking,” an official acknowledged. “Cracking down on and rounding up over a million or two illegal immigrants, holding them in detention facilities, feeding them and transporting them to the border or arranging for them to fly out of Pakistan would require a logistical plan and resources, human as well as financial,” the official said, requesting not to be named. “And this is what we are working on at the moment.”

How many undocumented ‘aliens’?

No one within the government actually has any idea of the number of illegal immigrants in Pakistan. “The figures we have are estimates,” a senior official looking after the subject in Islamabad told Dawn by phone. “When we say there are 1.7 million undocumented Afghans, it is just an assessment,” he said.

According to the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, there are 2.18m documented Afghan refugees in Pakistan. This includes the 1.3m refugees holding Proof of Registra­tion (POR) cards as per the census done in 2006-07, as well as an additional 880,000 refugees granted Afghan Citizens Cards (ACCs) in 2017 following a registration drive in 2017.

The collapse of the Afghan Republic and the return of the Afghan Taliban in August 2021 brought a new influx of roughly 600,000 to 800,000 Afghans to Pakistan, according to government officials. Some of these Afghan nationals had valid visas but are now overstaying.

In between the three categories are an unspecified number of illegal immigrants from Afghanistan. “This number could be anything north of one million,” the official said. “This is a major concern both from security as well as social and economic standpoint.”

Half-baked plans

“The problem is that the repatriation of Afghan refugees has long been on the agenda, particularly after the unveiling of the National Action Plan (NAP) in December 2014. Plans were made and strategies firmed up, but no serious effort was made to prepare a workable logistical plan backed up by human and financial resources,” the official said.

Officials say there appears to be some seriousness now to address this long-pestering issue. “There is a realisation. It is getting the attention that it deserves, but what we need is a proper plan,” said another official. “And this is what we are working now.”

The only tangible outcome of the NAP on the repatriation of Afghan refugees, say these officials, was the second registration of undocumented Afghans that resulted in granting them the ACCs in 2017. “Nothing was done of the repatriation front after that,” an official said.

Officials say any plan to undertake a repatriation of undocumented foreigners of this scale should involve mapping, sensitisation, logistics and mobilisation of human and monetary resources. “This is the biggest challenge right now,” another official said.

Pakistan is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention nor the 1967 protocol, but officials say that while they are committed to looking after refugees holding POR and ACCs, the presence of millions of refugees, including the undocumented ones, is now posing several national security issues. “This is the need of the hour, but we must do it properly,” an official said.

‘Transit Afghans’

But the most critical of all, the “legally illegal”, as one official put it, is the status of hundreds of thousands of Afghans who fled to Pakistan after the collapse of the Ashraf Ghani administration. Among them are former servicemen, human rights activists, singers and musicians and others. Many of them have come with valid visas, and many others just crossed over into Pakistan without any travel documents.

While many of them lie low, thousands of others, according to the UNHCR, have approached them for asylum or seek settlement in a third country. The screening process done by the UN agency in partnership with the Islamabad-based NGO Society for Human Rights and Prisoners’ Aid (SHARP) is painfully slow, involving data collection and in-person interviews of the families and their settlement according to the settlement quota of third countries.

Government officials say the process was not only slow, but the success rate of individuals seeking settlement was less than 5 per cent, meaning that most of the new arrivals in Pakistan might not meet the standard requirement and end up becoming illegal immigrants as well.

The “thousands” of new arrivals who have approached the UNHCR so far are technically and legally under the international body’s protection. But this leaves hundreds of thousands of others who are waiting for their turn to be registered and screened. Their fate is in limbo.

“Pakistan has remained a generous refugee host for decades. The UNHCR acknowledges and appreciates this hospitality and generosity,” Qaisar Afridi, UNHCR’s spokesman in Islamabad, said.

“Any refugee return must be voluntary and without any pressure to ensure protection for those seeking safety,” he said. “Pakistan needs to show compassion for the most vulnerable.”

Published in Dawn, October 5th, 2023

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