Govt tightens noose around migrants as ‘refoulement’ commences

Published November 1, 2023
Afghan people gather to board buses as they prepare to return home, after Pakistan gave last warning to undocumented migrants to leave, at a bus stop in Karachi on October 29, 2023. — Reuters
Afghan people gather to board buses as they prepare to return home, after Pakistan gave last warning to undocumented migrants to leave, at a bus stop in Karachi on October 29, 2023. — Reuters

• Minister promises humane treatment in ‘holding centres’; helpline launched to address complaints of maltreatment
• Voluntary repatriation to continue at Chaman until 4pm; action set to begin in earnest over next 24 hours

ISLAMABAD / QUETTA: Although the government-mandated deadline for foreigners illegally residing in Pakistan to leave the country, voluntarily, technically expired at Tuesday midnight, officials across the country suggested that action against those who refused to leave would begin in earnest within the next 24 hours.

Talking to reporters in the cap­ital, caretaker Interior Minis­ter Sarfraz Bugti said on Tuesday that the government’s crackdown against stragglers would begin after the deadline for the voluntary return of undocumented immigrants, including Afghan refugees, ended on Oct 31.

However, various officials from the provinces claimed that those who continued to exit the country of their own accord on Nov 1 would not be bothered, but those who did not make for the border would be placed in ‘holding centres’ set-up in all four provinces, as well as Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan.

In his remarks on Tuesday, the caretaker interior minister directed officials and agencies to be respectful to undocumented immigrants while rounding them up for detention in ‘holding centres’ after the deadline expired.

He also announced that the ministry had established a complaint cell with a hotline number to address complaints of mistreatment or manhandling. The UAN number is 051 111-367-226, while the hotline number is 051-9211685.

“We have given clear instructions to all agencies and officials to treat women, children and elders with special care and respect,” the minster said, adding that arrangements for food and medical facilities were being made in the holding centers.

But even as he spoke, authorities in Islamabad razed settlements where Afghans lived, leaving them to sift through the rubble for their belongings.

Foreigners Act

Legal cover for the deportation exercise is being provided by the invocation of Section 3 of the Foreigners Act 1946, which was okayed by the federal cabinet a day earlier.

Section 3 (1) of the Foreigners Act reads: “Federal Government may by order make provision either generally or with respect to all foreigners or with respect to any particular foreigner or any prescribed class or description of foreigner, for prohibiting, regulating or restricting the entry of foreigners into Pakistan or their departure there from or their presence or continued presence therein”.

As per the deportation plan shared by authorities, district administrations and police will now approach Afghan nationals and foreigners and check their data through biometric verification.

All those possessing Proof of Registration, Afghan Citizen Cards or other travel documents would be spared in the first phase, while those not possessing any valid documentation would be taken to ‘holding centres’ for onward deportation.

At the holding centres, the respective deputy commissioners will ensure preparation of legal documents and recording of credentials of illegal foreigners necessary for their deportation. The representatives of FIA, Nadra etc. will be present there for completion of legal formalities.

In case of complex cases, for instance, where illegal migrants had married Pakistani citizens, they would not be deported in the first phase. However, such cases will be registered, nonetheless for action as per government policy in the subsequent phases.

In case, illegal foreigners either refuse or country of origin refuses to accept them, such individuals would be transferred to holding centres near the international border, as designated by the province in question.

The federal government, it is learnt, has also finalised a day-wise schedule of departure and notified the provinces to avoid confusion during the deportation process.

Situation at the borders

Thousands of undocumented Afghans returned to their homeland via the Torkham border crossing on Tuesday, taking the total to over one hundred thousand since mid September, official sources said.

Tuesday saw an uptick in the number of returning Afghans with a looming deadline. Official statistics in the evening saw 21,536 Afghans returning to their homeland. The total comprises 883 families including 7,292 men and 8,964 children.

The number is nearly double of the returning Afghans on Monday, officials said.

The total number of undocumented Afghans returning to Afghanistan since September now stands at 104,085, the official said.

Meanwhile, caretaker Balochistan Information Minister Jan Achakzai said that illegal immigrants could continue to voluntarily cross the border until 4pm on Wednesday. Speaking at a press conference, he said that over 30,000 illegal immigrants, including Iranians, Iraqis and Afghans, had returned to their countries over the last three weeks.

He said that November 1 was the last date for illegal immigrants to cross and from this evening, cases would be registered under the Foreigners Act against those who stayed behind, while their assets would be confiscated.

HRCP concerned

But while the government continued to ramp up its deportation efforts, human rights groups and civil society organisations reiterated their concern over the action, with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) urging UNHCR to ensure protection for Afghan refugees.

In a letter addressed to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, HRCP Chairperson Hina Jilani said the move to expel Afghans could “trigger a humanitarian crisis”.

Saleem Shahid in Quetta, Mansoor Malik in Lahore and our bureau in Peshawar also contributed to this report

Published in Dawn, November 1st, 2023

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