Urging illegal immigrants living in Pakistan to return to their countries voluntarily, caretaker Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti on Thursday said that the government had finalised the plan for repatriating such individuals.
The statement comes as only a few days remain to the government’s October 31 deadline for illegal immigrants to leave Pakistan. Earlier this month, the government gave an ultimatum to all undocumented immigrants, including Afghan nationals, to leave Pakistan by the deadline or else, risk imprisonment and deportation to their respective countries.
The decision was taken in an apex committee meeting headed by caretaker Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar and attended by Chief of Army Staff General Asim Munir, among others. The committee also decided that movement across the border would be subject to passports and visas, while electronic Afghan identity cards (or e-tazkiras) would only be accepted until October 31.
The announcement had drawn criticism from several quarters, with many saying the drive was aimed at Afghan refugees.
Briefing the Senate Standing Committee on Interior a day earlier, Bugti said the government’s message about action against illegal residents was misunderstood, adding that its deportation drive was against all those living illegally in the country, not just Afghans.
Addressing a press conference in Islamabad today, the interim interior minister said that the plan for the repatriation of illegal immigrants had been finalised. “All our preparations in this regard have been completed,” he said.
He said that “holding centres” had been formed in the provinces as well as Islamabad, Azad Jammu and Kashmir, and Gilgit-Baltistan. He said that illegal immigrants would be provided medical facilities and food.
Bugti assured that women, children and the elderly would be treated with respect. “But along with that we won’t comprise on any illegal citizens living in Pakistan after November 1,” he said.
The minister again reiterated that he was talking about those individuals who did not have any valid travel documents or papers.
“So in the first stage we will expel them. We have made holding centres for them. They will not be sent to jail […] and from the centre they will be transported out of Pakistan,” he said.
The minister further said that those being expelled from the country would only be allowed to carry their local currency amounting to Rs50,000. He said that funds exceeding this number could only be shifted through proper banking channels.
“A modality is being prepared in this regard and it will be finalised by today or tomorrow,” he said. “In the case of the Afghans, Afghan nationals can take 50,000 in Afghan currency per family. Permission will not be allowed for more than this.”
Bugti also issued a warning to Pakistanis “facilitating” such illegal immigrants. He said that those hiding illegal immigrants would be violating the law and the government would take strict action in this regard.
“So this is again my appeal to those who are living here illegally: the deadline for voluntary return is November 1. They should return voluntarily rather than us taking action.”
He said that the state had done geo-fencing and identified areas where illegal immigrants were residing. “We know where they are. They are in villages, in Pakistan’s metropolitan cities, in different small cities. The government has complete know-how about where they are.”
At the same time, Bugti conceded repatriation plan was a “challenging task” but said that the plan would be implemented after November 1. He again encouraged illegal immigrants to return to their countries voluntarily.
Responding to a question from a reporter, the minister said that the government had talked to all the provinces in this regard. He said that centres would be established in each province, the cost of which would be borne by the respective governments.
The minister reiterated that the government was only concerned with those living illegally in the country, adding that it would welcome those who would want to come through legal means and for business and investment purposes.
Bugti also said that a hotline along with an information centre would be established at the interior ministry for reporting illegal immigrants. “It will be active by November 1 and anybody can register a complaint,” he said.
He said that clear instructions had been given to law enforcement officials that manhandling illegal foreigners would not be tolerated. “Everyone will be treated respectfully but firmly,” the minister added.
“We are encouraging voluntary return so that they can be saved from being manhandled and arrested,” Bugti said. “I assure you that once our investigation is complete, anybody involved in this illegal work will be punished.”
In response to another question, he made it absolutely clear that “no permission will be given to smuggle dollars”.
Govt defends repatriation plan
The move to expel illegal immigrants had drawn a response from Afghan authorities, with Afghan Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid terming it “unacceptable” while urging authorities to revisit the policy.
Subsequently, Foreign Office (FO) spokesperson Mumtaz Zahra Baloch had stated that the crackdown on undocumented immigrants was not aimed at any particular ethnic group. At a weekly press briefing, she said the decision was aimed at “regulating illegal aliens” residing in Pakistan, irrespective of their nationality.
Foreign Minister Jalil Abbas Jilani had also defended the move, saying no other country allows illegal immigrants and the decision is in line with international practice.