Repatriation of Illegal Immigrants: Pakistan’s Dilemma

Islamabad has recently decided to deport illegal immigrants by the end of November in order to deal with the socio-economic and security issues arising in the country. The decision concerns those 1.7 million Afghans who possess neither Proof of Registration (PoR) cards nor Afghanistan Citizen Card (ACC) and other migrants who are living illegally in the country. 

This decision is not against Afghan refugees or Pushtuns, but against illegal immigrants of any nationality, which is a rightful demand of Pakistan according to international norms. According to the Refugee Convention, refugees have a right not to be removed, in any manner whatsoever, by their host country to their country of origin, or any other country, where they are at risk of being seriously harmed. This right is called the principle of non-refoulement. Notwithstanding the fact that the Doha Agreement of 2020 has considerably changed the situation in Afghanistan, where hope for peace and stability has returned. 

Reportedly, the Afghan economy & security situation has improved which makes it a genuine case for the return of stranded Afghans back to Afghanistan from all host countries. Afghan citizens fled their country due to war and uncertainty. Now that peace, stability and certainty prevail in Afghanistan, their illegal stay in neighbouring countries should be a matter of disrepute for IAG. In addition, deportation of aliens by host countries is a normal practice. In 2023 alone, Iran, Turkey, the US & India collectively deported over 100,000 Afghan refugees and Pakistan is not an exception.

Pakistan’s national policy on Afghan refugees remains unchanged. It was announced in July 2013 and aligned with the Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees (SSAR). The SSAR is a regional framework with a focus on voluntary repatriation, sustainable reintegration, and assistance to host communities. The policy states that Pakistan will continue to provide protection and assistance to the registered refugees until their voluntary return to Afghanistan, and will extend their PoR cards periodically. However, with the withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan and handing over the power to the Taliban, the situation in Afghanistan is improving. The Taliban government extends diplomatic relations with regional and international states which allows them to perform up to the international standards of democracy and liberal order. Islamabad also remains in contact with Afghan authorities on all matters of bilateral interest, including the safe return of illegal Afghan immigrants.

Moreover, Pakistan’s decision is not targeted against Afghan refugees, rather it’s against illegal foreigners. By default, most of them are from Afghanistan for obvious reasons that create a false impression that the decision is against Afghanistan citizens only. Authorities have clarified that Pakistan is neither against Afghans nor against Pushtuns but only against illegal immigrants of any nationality.

Pakistan has gracefully shouldered a considerable burden in hosting a large number of 3.7 million Afghan nationals, both legal and illegal, who have fled their country due to war. It has been hosting them for more than four decades, showing generosity and hospitality, but also facing economic and security risks. However, the recent decision is grounded in economic & security challenges and limited capacity to manage illegal immigrants.

The occupation of refugees inevitably exacts costs to Pakistan’s economy. The overall economic impact of Afghan refugees on Pakistan is reported to be negative. Even though Pakistan has gained recognition internationally for hosting millions of refugees for more than four decades, it has done so at notable economic costs. In 2021, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned that Afghanistan’s economic slump would impact its neighbours, including Pakistan. Since the outbreak of COVID-19 and internal policy flaws, Pakistan has been suffering from severe economic crisis. This is the same era of Afghan exodus after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 2020. 

Pakistan’s decision is also justified by the involvement of some Afghan nationals in terrorist activities against Pakistan, which is alarming and unacceptable. It has witnessed a surge in terrorist attacks following the Afghan Taliban’s return to power in August 2021. Islamabad has expressed serious concerns over the sanctuaries and liberty of action available to banned terrorist outfits, especially the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), on Afghan soil. It has also urged the interim Afghan government to take decisive actions against terrorists operating on its soil and to cooperate with Pakistan in resolving this issue. However, no significant measures have been taken by IAG to address the concerns of Islamabad.

There are numerous credible intelligence reports that Afghan nationals are still joining TTP and ISKP ranks against the decree and instructions of the supreme Afghan commander Hibatullah Akhundzada – a mere display of disobedience. In 2023, the involvement of Afghan citizens in 14 out of 24 terrorist incidents, which is 58% of the role in such attacks is alarming & justifies Pakistan’s decision. In addition, some of the Afghan refugees are involved in criminal activities, such as smuggling, drug trafficking, kidnapping, and extortion. The authorities have also claimed that some of the refugees have forged or obtained Pakistani identity cards illegally, which poses a risk to national security and sovereignty. Terrorism has no place in Pakistan and the involvement of Afghan nationals in terrorist incidents in Pakistan is detrimental to regional peace, and stability and deviation from the Doha peace agreement by the interim Afghan government which pledged under the agreement that it will not allow to use the soil of Afghanistan against any other state.

On the other hand, the unilateral decision taken by Islamabad to repatriate the illegal immigrants with in 28 days has been criticised by UNHCR, human rights organizations and the international community on the account that Afghanistan is currently facing several human rights challenges, particularly for women and girls. In such a situation, Pakistan’s new plans would have “serious implications” for all who have been forced to leave the country and may face serious protection risks upon their return. Though Pakistan has the economic and security grounds for such a decision, its time frame can have a chilling effect on illegal immigrants. Islamabad should contemplate the following key concerns to avoid a humanitarian crisis and maintain peace in the region:

  • Pakistan should collaborate with relevant UN entities and other international partners to develop a comprehensive and sustainable mechanism of repatriation and ensure volunteer departure respecting their decision to return to the country of origin or seek international protection.
  • Secondly, Pakistan should create a database of illegal immigrants with the help of NADRA before deporting them. It will lower the risk of deporting half families and separating minors and girls from their families.
  • Thirdly, Pakistan should start negotiations with Afghan authorities to convince them on the accepting afghan refugees and making arrangments for their reintegration into Afghan society. Its a moral duty of Pakistan and the international community to facilitate refugees belonging to any nation.
  • Pakistan should avoid to take haste decisions which can have serious implications on its relations with its Western neighbour. The plan to repatriate illegal immigrants should be implemented in phases to avoid any backlash.
  • Last but not least, Pakistan should initiate and facilitate the process of supporting those illegal immigrant families with the help of regional and international organizations, as well as provide them with cash grants and transportation assistance upon their departure.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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