The Platform

Babies born to Afghans parents in a refugee camp in Pakistan. (Mallika Panorat/European Union)

Given the hardships many Afghans will face back in their homeland, Pakistan has been widely criticized for its decision to expel over a million Afghan refugees.

Pakistan has recently witnessed a troubling development: the forcible displacement of an estimated 1.7 million Afghan refugees and long-established residents. This sweeping action, authorized by the country’s very powerful military, has not only attracted international criticism but has also sown disquiet among Afghans and Pakistanis. It is crucial to acknowledge that these mass deportations do not reflect the sentiments of the majority of Pakistanis, who have coexisted with Afghan neighbors, schoolmates, and colleagues for generations, fostering robust cultural, ethnic, and religious ties. For a multitude of these refugees, Pakistan represents more than a haven; it is their place of birth and the sole nation they recognize as home.

The individuals being expelled—encompassing children, women, adults in need of medical attention, families, and those connected to the erstwhile U.S.-supported regime—are being sent back to Afghanistan under Taliban rule, a country struggling with political and economic isolation. These deportations have ripped apart families amid allegations of mistreatment. Moreover, there have been reports of undue limitations on the amount of personal belongings refugees may carry, coupled with an exorbitant $830 exit fee levied for their forced departure. The Pakistani leadership, particularly the unelected caretaker prime minister, Anwar ul Haq Kakar, should have undertaken a more thorough and inclusive discussion on this critical matter instead of leveraging it for short-term political maneuvering ahead of the elections. The government’s approach to this issue may lead to unforeseen and far-reaching consequences.

While it is within the prerogative of any sovereign state to protect its borders and manage immigration, the abrupt and mass deportation of refugees is alarming. It could potentially engender lasting antipathy among Afghans towards Pakistan. The seeds of desire for retribution may be sown along the extensive shared border, particularly if the Taliban government fails to ameliorate the plight of those repatriated effectively. With the Taliban already grappling with the fallout from the Herat earthquake in October and other political and diplomatic predicaments, their ability to provide adequate long-term support to the returning refugees is in doubt.

Pakistani authorities involved in the deportation process should have considered this decision from multiple perspectives, weighing the potential diplomatic repercussions and the ethical implications of deporting Afghan civilians amidst ongoing turmoil in the Middle East. The deportation raises profound moral questions: on what grounds can we justify sending children back to a country where their schools are shuttered? In the event of a future conflict with a right-wing, Hindu-led India, to which country could Pakistan’s vast population flee if not to their neighbor, Afghanistan? Is it morally defensible to repatriate refugees to face possible persecution under a strict regime that Pakistan itself helped empower over the past two decades? And importantly, how might this forced repatriation affect the dynamics with the Pakistan Taliban, who might see an opportunity to recruit from among these displaced peoples?

In light of these grave concerns, a call for a more humane policy is imperative. The Pakistani government should allow for an extended period for Afghan refugees and residents to return to Afghanistan and should collaborate with the Afghan Taliban leadership and non-governmental organizations to provide any assistance necessary as they welcome back these individuals. Simultaneously, it is essential to acknowledge that many Afghans may choose not to leave Pakistan for a variety of legitimate reasons, and their right to seek asylum should be respected rather than being subjected to forcible arrest and deportation, as has been threatened.

The recent deportation edict against Afghan refugees is a political gambit that should not have been enacted, particularly by a newly appointed, inexperienced caretaker government seeking political gain. This policy needs to be reassessed and reversed, as advocated by entities such as Human Rights Watch. Pakistan must consider a more thoughtful and compassionate approach that aids refugees instead of casting them as scapegoats for the nation’s ills.

Zia Pacha Khan is a DC-based foreign policy analyst and a consultant/auditor with federal civilian and DoD agencies. Zia holds a BA in Global Affairs and Economics as well as a Masters in Public Administration.