• Deadline for voluntary return of foreigners expires tonight, but hundreds of people still in process of leaving
• Officials doubt govt will see smooth sailing as logistics of detaining aliens may overburden prisons and holding centres
• Around 100,000 returned via Torkham, Chaman since announcement of deadline, provincial govts set to begin rounding up those who stay behind
KARACHI / PESHAWAR / QUETTA / LAHORE: The deadline for foreigners staying in Pakistan illegally is set to expire at the end of the day, but despite the government’s claims that preparations are in place for rounding up and deporting all unregistered aliens — Afghans or otherwise — officials familiar with the process foresee a lot of logistical and political hurdles.
Nearly 100,000 illegal Afghan immigrants have voluntarily gone back to their country from the Torkham and Chaman border crossings over the past month, officials said on Monday.
However, differing estimates regarding the total number of illegal immigrants in Pakistan make the deportation seem more challenging by the day.
Meanwhile, caretaker Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti warned of strict action if any Pakistanis were found providing shelter to undocumented immigrants, including Afghans, after today (Tuesday).
At a presser, he categorically said that any Pakistani national who rented out property to illegal immigrants would be considered a partner in the crime.
Separately, PM Anwaarul Haq Kakar told students at LUMS that while it was wrong to assume that all Afghans were terrorists, the involvement of certain groups in illegal activities was a part of the problem, adding it was the prime responsibility of the government to protect the lives of its people.
In addition, the Foreign Office clarified on Monday that the decision to deport illegal foreigners residing in Pakistan was in line with the sovereign domestic laws and international principles.
Responding to an earlier statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, FO Spokesperson Mumtaz Zahra Baloch said the Illegal Foreigners Repatriation Plan (IFRP) applies to all illegal foreigners residing in Pakistan, irrespective of their nationality and country of origin.
Karachi and Sindh
Authorities estimate that half a million Afghans live in Karachi alone, and the Sindh government has claimed that it has so far identified 200,000 illegal immigrants across the province.
But an official told Dawn that there were around 500,000 ‘illegal’ Afghan immigrants in Sindh and it would be very difficult for authorities to lodge even half of them in holding facilities.
The plan to repatriate hundreds of thousands of immigrant might face political opposition, issue of logistics as well as diplomatic implications, he felt, noting that there were over 750 illegal Afghans who had been recently arrested during a crackdown in Karachi and languishing in jails.
He said that since prisons in Sindh were already overcrowded, where to lodge even a small number of illegal Afghan immigrants would be a big question.
However, Sindh Home Minister retired Brig Haris Nawaz dispelled these concerns, saying that three ‘holding centres’ were being set up in Sindh, one at the Sultanabad Haji Camp in Karachi and one each in Hyderabad and Jacobabad.
He claimed that 400-500 illegal immigrants would be brought to the Karachi holding centre, for example, and repatriation would be carried out three days a week, i.e. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, through buses and trains. He said that they would not house all illegal immigrants in the holding centres to avoid congestion and other problems.
He said all expenditure for deporting the immigrants would be borne by the Sindh government. He estimated that it may cost up to Rs2 billion and Sindh cabinet would give its approval.
Meanwhile, a source in the Sindh government said that so far, the home ministry has not sent a request to the finance department for the provision of funds.
Informed sources said that it has been decided that Ismaili Afghans who have applied for immigration to Canada would not be apprehended and detained.
According to official documents seen by Dawn, around 300,000 illegal Afghan refugees are based in KP.
On Monday, an official privy to the developments said nobody was being taken to the ‘holding’ areas as the deadline has yet to expire and the process of shifting illegal immigrants to the holding areas would start from tomorrow (Wednesday).
“But, even if the deadline expires and somebody wants to leave voluntarily, nobody will bother them. But for those who still stay here, will be arrested by the police and charged for illegally staying in Pakistan,” another official said.
“They will obviously have to face charges for illegally staying in Pakistan, but instead of shifting them to prisons, a judicial magistrate at these holding areas will issue release orders of the illegal Afghan nationals following their screening by Nadra,” the official said, adding that after this, the immigrants will be transported to the border for deportation.
When contacted, Additional Chief Secretary Home Muhammad Abid Majeed said the government was ready for both — voluntary return and deportation of illegal immigrants. “Both processes will go in parallel,” he told Dawn.
In a presser, Balochistan Information Minister Jan Achakzai said on Monday that reports about extending date for the repatriation of illegal immigrants are fake and no extension was being planned.
Like other areas, the government of the largest province also claims to be all set to launch a “comprehensive crackdown” against immigrants staying illegally in the country.
The Punjab government has arranged i-tablets that are being provided to the respective deputy commissioners and district police, wherein Nadra, police and security agencies have fed the data of Afghan nationals living in Pakistan who either have Proof of Residence (POR) cards or Afghan citizen cards.
The Home Department has also developed a dashboard where authorities can enter credentials of illegal foreigners and other relevant information.
From Wednesday, district administrations will approach Afghan nationals and foreigners to check their data through thumb and finger-scanning via the i-tabs.
Such foreigners’ property and business would also be considered forfeit and strict action would be taken against their facilitators, a source in the Home Department told Dawn.
In case of complex cases, for instance where an illegal alien had married a Pakistani citizen, they shall not be deported in the first phase.
The federal government has also finalised a day-wise schedule of departure and notified the respective provinces so there is no confusion when an exodus of Afghan nationals and foreigners takes place.
Published in Dawn, October 31st, 2023