The Platform

Afghan refugee and her child in Pakistan. (United Nations)

Pakistan wants to repatriate a significant number of Afghan refugees back to their homeland.

As socio-economic and security anxieties swell, Islamabad has unveiled plans to deport illegal immigrants by the close of November. Central to this directive are the nearly 1.7 million Afghans who find themselves bereft of both Proof of Registration (PoR) cards and the Afghanistan Citizen Card (ACC), among other stateless wanderers.

This initiative isn’t an articulation of prejudice against Afghan refugees or Pushtuns. It’s a testament to Pakistan’s commitment to uphold international norms against unlawful immigration from any origin. Existing global accords, like the Refugee Convention, caution against forcing refugees back to territories where peril looms large. This principle, termed nonrefoulement, assumes renewed significance as recent shifts in Afghanistan, particularly post the 2020 Doha Agreement, kindle optimism for regional tranquility.

Afghanistan’s recent strides in the socio-economic and security arenas argue persuasively for the return of its citizens from their adoptive homes. Although war and instability previously spurred many Afghans into diaspora, the current climate of relative stability in Afghanistan renders prolonged undocumented stays in neighboring states increasingly discordant. It’s worth noting that, in 2023 alone, countries spanning from Iran to India have facilitated the return of over 100,000 Afghan souls, aligning with a wider international precedent.

Pakistan’s stance on Afghan refugees, crystallized in 2013, stands unwavering. Anchored to the Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees (SSAR), it champions voluntary returns, sustainable reintegration, and bolstering communities that play host. Amid the ebb and flow of Afghanistan’s political tides—marked by the U.S. exit and the rise of the Taliban—there’s a discernible wind of change. The Taliban’s nascent diplomatic overtures hint at a commitment to democracy and open governance. In parallel, Islamabad remains engaged in discussions with Afghan peers over shared concerns, including the graceful return of Afghan nationals lacking documentation.

Yet, for clarity’s sake: Pakistan’s latest edict doesn’t exclusively zero in on Afghan refugees. While a significant chunk of the undocumented may hail from Afghanistan, the directive remains agnostic to nationality.

Historically, Pakistan’s doors have been open to a staggering 3.7 million Afghans—a blend of legal settlers and those on the fringes. This enduring sanctuary, while underscoring Pakistan’s humanitarian spirit, has also thrown its economic and security challenges into sharp relief. By 2021, global institutions like the IMF were sounding alarms over the potential fiscal aftershocks of Afghanistan’s slump, a worry exacerbated by Pakistan’s own battles, like the pandemic.

Security apprehensions linger. A fraction of the Afghan populace has unsettling ties to acts of terror against Pakistan, especially post the Taliban’s 2021 resurgence. Islamabad has frequently spotlighted the threats emanating from groups operating out of Afghan soil, pleading for decisive action—an appeal that, thus far, falls on deaf ears in Kabul.

However, the landscape is multifaceted. Islamabad’s tight 28-day timeline for repatriation hasn’t gone unnoticed, with entities such as the UNHCR voicing concerns. They point to the myriad human rights challenges in Afghanistan—particularly for women and girls—as rendering such brisk deportations potentially perilous.

Treading this delicate path demands nuance. Collaborative endeavors with international bodies could yield a more rounded repatriation blueprint, cognizant of Afghanistan’s ongoing human rights quagmire. Engaging Afghan officials might smooth transitions for returnees. Constructing an exhaustive database of undocumented settlers, perhaps with aid from NADRA, can mitigate family separations during deportation. Gradual repatriation plans, supplemented by regional and global partnerships for logistical and financial support, might stave off unforeseen repercussions.

In this complex geopolitical dance, Pakistan finds itself tasked with harmonizing its domestic imperatives with its obligations to humanity.

Iqra Awan is a student of International Relations at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.