The government has initiated a nationwide operation to deport illegal foreign nationals, the majority of whom are Afghans, after the deadline to voluntarily leave the country expired, it emerged on Wednesday.
Earlier this month, the government gave an ultimatum to all undocumented immigrants to leave Pakistan by Oct 31 or else, risk imprisonment and deportation to their respective countries.
Of the more than four million Afghans living in Pakistan, the government estimates 1.7m are undocumented.
While the decision had prompted criticism from Afghanistan and several other quarters, the caretakers refused to budge from the deadline, insisting the move is not aimed at any particular ethnic group.
The government has decided to keep foreign nationals residing in the country without identity documents in “holding centres” before deporting them to their respective countries.
Such centres have been established in Rawalpindi, Islamabad and Attock while over 800 houses of the ‘illegal immigrants’ were demolished in the capital a day ago. Similarly, 52,000 illegal residents have been identified and mapped in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for a crackdown.
In an interior ministry notification dated October 30, which Dawn.com has seen, the government recalled the “Illegal Foreigners Repatriation Plan,” which it said it had approved on September 21 for the “repatriation of all illegal/unregistered foreigners, including those who are overstaying their visa validity period”.
The ministry said it was “pleased to convey consent to and order repatriation of all such illegal/unregistered foreigners, including those overstaying their visa validity period, who are presently under trial or undergoing any sentence” under Section 14B (deportation pending trial or undergoing sentence of imprisonment) of the Foreigners Act, 1946.
It further stated that foreigners “who are under trial or undergoing sentence for any offence other than specified in the Foreigners Act” were not to be repatriated.
Noting that it was “expedient to authorise district administration, police, prosecution, jail administration and all authorities that may be relevant, to take steps for arrest, detention (in jails or any other suitable premises) and departure of such illegal foreigners”, the government said it was invoking the provisions of sub-sections 1, 2(c), 2(e)(1) and 2(g) of Section 3 (power to make orders) of the Foreigners Act, 1946 with effect from Nov 1.
Interim Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti shared a video of Afghan nationals lined up to board a bus to the neighbouring country.
“This action is a testament to Pakistan’s determination to repatriate any individuals residing in the country without proper documentation,” he said.
According to state-run Radio Pakistan, it is the first time in the country’s history that the interior ministry has “issued instructions to all provinces to deport illegal foreigners under the Foreigners Act”.
The identification process of 0.2m illegal foreigners residing in Sindh has been completed, the report said. It added that operations have also been initiated in Punjab and Balochistan “to deport illegal Afghans and their data is being checked by scanning”.
Authorities in KP, where the majority of Afghan migrants live, will launch a widespread operation to arrest undocumented families who refuse to leave, caretaker information minister Barrister Firoze Jamal Shah told AFP.
AFP quoted the state media as saying that 49 holding centres, some capable of holding several thousand people, were set to open across the country on Wednesday to process and deport Afghans.
FM Jilani terms concerns ‘huge misperception’
Caretaker Foreign Minister Jalil Abbas Jilani termed the concerns raised over the government’s decision as a “huge misperception”, which he said was especially developed by the media.
Speaking to Dawn.com, he noted that there was a need to inform the media about the “real situation”. The minister claimed, “I will only say that the majority of Afghan refugees, who have registration cards, are not at all being expelled.”
“Other than that, those who have documents, they are not being [expelled] either,” he said without specifying which documents.
The foreign minister added, “Thirdly, the vulnerable communities among Afghans, which include minorities or there are some other people who have apprehensions that they will have to face some issues after going there, we will also adopt a flexible approach towards them.”
FM Jilani then said that only those who had “no documents at all and were residing here without any documents”, were being told to return to their home country.
He went on to say that the caretaker prime minister and his cabinet had decided that such people’s “dignity and the respect of their women and children will be taken care of”.
Taliban govt calls for more time for Afghans to leave Pakistan
Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s Taliban government urged Pakistan to give undocumented Afghans in the country more time to leave as pressure mounts at border posts swarmed by thousands of returnees fleeing the threat of deportation.
In a statement, Taliban authorities thanked Pakistan and other countries that have hosted millions of Afghans who fled their country during decades of conflict, but “asked them to not forcibly deport Afghans with little notice but to give them time to prepare”.
Since taking power in 2021, the Taliban government has urged Afghans to return home but has also condemned Pakistan’s actions, saying nationals are being punished for tensions between Islamabad and Kabul, and calling for people to be given more time to depart.
Mass exodus of Afghans as deadline arrives
More than 140,000 undocumented immigrants, most of them Afghan nationals, have returned to their Taliban-ruled homeland, Reuters quoted Pakistani officials as saying.
A KP senior official said about 104,000 Afghan nationals had left through the main Torkham border crossing during the last two weeks.
“Some of them have been living in Pakistan for more than 30 years without any proof of registration,” said Nasir Khan, the deputy commissioner of the area.
An as yet undetermined number have also left via Balochistan’s Chaman border crossing. However, Pakistan’s interior ministry put the number higher, saying 140,322 of those who had stayed illegally had left.
“A process to arrest the foreigners … for deportation has started by Nov 1,” it said in a statement, while adding that voluntary return would still be encouraged.
Also today, thousands joined a snaking queue that stretched for seven kilometres at the busiest border point, where at least 29,000 had crossed back into Afghanistan the day before, AFP reported.
A 14-year-old Afghan girl, who AFP did not name for security reasons, said she would stay in Pakistan as long as possible, despite not having legal papers.
“We are not going back home, because my education in Afghanistan would come to a grinding halt,” she told AFP in Peshawar.
“Our father has told us that if he is arrested by Pakistani authorities, we should not leave even then. Because we will have no life in Afghanistan.”
In the capital Islamabad, police have already begun demolishing hundreds of illegally built mud homes where Afghans had been living in poverty.
“Enough is enough, tell us the route and we will arrange a vehicle and leave today. This humiliation is too much,” 35-year-old Baaz Muhammad told AFP, who was born in Pakistan to refugee parents, as he watched a bulldozer raze his home.
In the mega port city of Karachi, Afghans who have lived for generations at a refugee camp have reported weeks of arbitrary arrests and extortion.
Millions of Afghans have poured into Pakistan in recent decades, fleeing a series of violent conflicts, including an estimated 600,000 since the Taliban government seized power in August 2021 and imposed its harsh interpretation of Islamic law.
Pakistan has said the deportations are to protect the country’s “welfare and security” after a sharp rise in attacks, which the government blames on militants operating from Afghanistan.
The policy has widespread support from Pakistanis, observers say, with a protracted refugee presence putting a heavy burden on the country’s infrastructure.
Lawyers and activists have said the scale of the crackdown is unprecedented, appealing for Afghans — some of whom have lived for decades in the country — to be given more time to pack up with dignity.
Authorities on the Afghan side of the border have been overwhelmed by the scale of exodus as they attempt to process those returning — some of whom are stepping foot in Afghanistan for the first time in their lives.
An ad hoc settlement has sprung up near the border post, where people are becoming increasingly desperate, sleeping outdoors with limited access to food, water and medicines as they wait for registration.
The government has established a High Commission to address the issue and said two temporary camps would be set up in the area near Torkham.
Wednesday’s statement also urged wealthy Afghans to work with the High Commission to support returnees with transport, accommodation and shelter.
Officials have also said staff, technical reinforcements and trucks carrying mobile toilets, generators and water tankers were being deployed to Torkham.
Samiullah Samoon, who leads immigration registration at Torkham, said the crossing is facing “an emergency situation”.
After fleeing into Afghanistan, 35-year-old Benafsha, four months pregnant with her seventh child, is waiting to be processed before moving on to their province of origin, Kunduz.
“In Kunduz, we don’t have land, or a home, or work,” said the woman, who was never documented in Pakistan despite living almost all her life in the country. “We don’t have anything there.”
200 ‘illegal’ Afghans detained
Meanwhile, around 200 Afghans residing in the country illegally were detained by law enforcers and sent to “Afghan transit centres” for their repatriation to the neighbouring country via the Chaman border.
As many as 350 Afghans were detained by law enforcers across the city, said South Deputy Inspector General (DIG) Syed Asad Raza, who is looking after two such centres.
The senior officer said that the centres, which had been previously called “holding centres”, had been renamed “Afghan transit centres”. He said that these were established at Haji Camp and Scouts Boys’ hostel in Sultanabad.
Raza said that out of the total number of people detained, close to 200 were sent to the centres as they did not possess valid papers while the rest were released.
Raza said that the detainees were “treated respectfully”, adding that their rights were not violated. He said that the Afghans detained would be sent to Balochistan later tonight for their repatriation to Afghanistan.