Apex Committee’s Decision on Forced Deportation of Undocumented Afghan Refugees: A Moral and Legal Imperative

The recent decision by the Pakistani government regarding the deportation of undocumented Afghan refugees has raised significant concerns. This decision not only violates human rights conventions and international law but also challenges the constitutional rights of individuals who have made the choice to take shelter in Pakistan in the time of instability at their home state. In this opinion piece, I examined the implications of this decision by the Ministry of Interior’s (MoI) to enact an “Illegal Foreigners’ Repatriation Plan” on 26 September 2023. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency and IOM, the UN Migration Agency, have collated their data on the arrest, detention, and deportation of Proof of Registration (PoR) holders, Afghan Citizen Card (ACC) holders, and undocumented Afghan nationals, as well as on the outflows of Afghan nationals at the Torkham and Chaman border crossing points, to better understand the protection environment and movements of Afghan nationals returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan. This opinion piece suggests the government of Pakistan to revise its policy and stop forceful deportation. The state must consider the implementation of more humane and legal measures to protect the rights and dignity of Afghans in Pakistan and Afghans returning to Afghanistan.

The Apex Committee’s decision also breaches customary law and Islamic civilization of hosting refugees. Being an Islamic state and as a signatory to these agreements, Pakistan is legally obligated to provide protection and shelter to non-citizens within its territories and borders. Moreover, the constitutional rights of refugees residing in Pakistan, irrespective of their refugee status is either determined or not, are being disregarded.

On September 26, 2023, Pakistan’s Ministry of Interior (MoI) issued an “Illegal Foreigners’ Repatriation Plan” internally, outlining a three-phase approach. It began with identifying and deporting illegal, unregistered, and overstaying foreign nationals, followed by deporting Afghan Citizen Card (ACC) holders, and forced repatriation of Proof of Registration (PoR) holders. On October 3, 2023, the MoI officially announced that Pakistan’s caretaker government set a November 1, 2023, deadline for “illegal foreigners” to leave Pakistan, facing expulsion otherwise.

On October 7, 2023, UNHCR and IOM jointly urged the Government of Pakistan to maintain a protection space for Afghan nationals. The Chief Commissionerate for Afghan Refugees (CCAR) issued a circular allowing PoR and ACC holders to reside temporarily in Pakistan, repatriating voluntarily unless involved in criminal activities. The Apex Committee’s decision was formulated by increasing terrorist threats, foreign involvement in crime, and negative economic impacts, affecting nearly 1.7 million Afghans from November 1, 2023.

From January 1 to October 23, 2023, 2,053 PoR card holders and 835 ACC card holders were arrested and detained, primarily from Balochistan (49%), KPK (22%), Punjab (14%), Sindh (9%), and Islamabad/Jammu Kashmir (6%). Arrests increased six-fold post-Apex Committee’s decision. Most returnees were undocumented Afghans (95%), followed by ACC holders (3%) and PoR holders (2%). Fear of arrest (78%) drove their return to Afghanistan. In September, 14,807 undocumented Afghans returned from Pakistan through Torkham and Spin Boldak border points. 

Unregistered Afghan refugees are not recognized by Pakistan or UNHCR, lacking access to services, benefits, and protections. Since Kabul’s fall, around 600,000 new Afghan arrivals were reported, with approximately 303,000 seeking UNHCR registration, though not permitted to register new arrivals.

Lawyers and human rights advocates have been raising concerns about the treatment of Afghan refugees (documented and undocumented) in Pakistan. Reports on social media highlight incidents where law enforcement agencies in Sindh have been involved in the harassment and arrests of PoR cardholders, who are subsequently released after paying substantial amount. Similar situations have arisen in Quetta, where police and Frontier Corps (FC) personnel conduct nighttime raids, interrogate families, and inquire about their legal documents. These actions have had far-reaching consequences, affecting the lives of registered refugees and their families.

Many refugees have missed the registration process and lack necessary legal documents due to various socio-economic and cultural barriers. For these individuals, the government’s decision to deport undocumented refugees, and the harassment of documented refugees by law enforcement agencies, has created a climate of fear, uncertainty and insecurity. As a result, some registered refugees are making the difficult choice to sell their homes at a reduced value before the November 1 deadline, out of fear of dishonor and forced deportation. Others, who have called Pakistan home for decades, are unwilling to leave unless forcibly deported.

The absence of formal refugee laws in Pakistan compounds these issues. The government has been dealing with refugee matters under the outdated Foreigners Act, which dates back to the colonial era. While Pakistan has generously hosted a large number of Afghan refugees, it has failed to provide them with a sense of belonging and security. Instead of deportation, the government should initiate a comprehensive process to determine the status of undocumented refugees and inquire if they are willing to repatriate voluntarily. Establishing a clear legal framework is critically important to ensure the protection, shelter, well-being, and livelihood of Afghan refugees in Pakistan and those returning to Afghanistan. The development of formal refugee laws and policies is essential to provide clear guidance for stakeholders and institutions. Unlawful arrests and harassment must be halted and condemned.

Furthermore, Pakistan should collaborate with international organizations and engage in constructive dialogue to develop and implement formal refugee and migration policies. These policies should ensure that Afghan refugees receive the protection, well-being, and livelihood opportunities they need, both in Pakistan and upon their return to Afghanistan. Donors must mobilize additional funding to support Afghan returnees and address the economic and humanitarian challenges in Afghanistan. Sustainable returns will not be achievable without progress on these fronts. High-level advocacy towards the Government of Pakistan should focus on overturning the repatriation plan and establishing improved response modalities for the Afghan refugee population in Pakistan.

In conclusion, the situation of Afghan refugees in Pakistan is a humanitarian issue that requires a compassionate and comprehensive response. Pakistan can uphold its tradition of hospitality, maintain its global reputation, and protect the rights and dignity of the Afghan refugees by revisiting its approach to this crisis. By doing so, Pakistan can continue to be a beacon of humanitarianism and demonstrate its commitment to upholding international law and human rights.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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