Pakistan restarts Afghan refugee repatriation amid border tensions

Pakistan is set to restart its initiative to deport Afghan refugees amid escalating tensions between the two neighboring countries.

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Speaking on condition of anonymity, an Islamabad-based senior intelligence official told The Media Line that a recent terror attack on a Pakistan military base near the border with Afghanistan reaffirmed Pakistan’s decision to deport all Afghan citizens forcibly. 

“Pakistan has consistently urged Kabul to take action against terrorists operating on its soil,” the source said. “However, Kabul’s lack of seriousness in addressing these concerns led to reinitiating the expulsion drive. In the broader national interest, Pakistan will cease to shoulder the burden of Afghan refugees.”

The source said that high-ranking officials were finalizing the strategy for the deportations, which are set to begin after the end of Ramadan in mid-April. 

He outlined Islamabad’s firmly held belief that terrorists frequently cross shared borders and take refuge in Afghanistan after targeting Pakistani security forces. 

In October 2023, the Pakistani government declared its intention to apprehend and repatriate hundreds of thousands of unregistered foreign nationals and migrants who lacked proper documentation, setting the deadline for Nov. 1, 2023. The announcement drew sharp criticism from the UN, the US, and international human rights organizations.

Children play outside their family’s shelters at Afghan refugee camp in Islamabad, Pakistan February 13, 2020. Picture taken February 13, 2020. (credit: REUTERS/Charlotte Greenfield)

The repatriation measures were anticipated to affect approximately 1.7 million undocumented Afghan refugees of the 4 million total Afghan nationals in Pakistan. 

Many of the Afghans currently residing in Pakistan arrived during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Between 600,000 and 800,000 Afghans are estimated to have entered Pakistan following the Taliban’s assumption of power in Afghanistan in 2021.

According to the UN’s International Organization for Migration, over 500,000 Afghans left Pakistan after Islamabad imposed the November deadline for undocumented migrants to depart. Pakistani officials say that these Afghan citizens either voluntarily returned or were forcefully deported.

The deportation process has been notably sluggish over the past few months for unclear reasons. The new efforts have been taken on amid mounting concerns in Islamabad over a surge in attacks on security forces. Pakistani officials attribute these attacks to religiously motivated terrorists suspected of seeking refuge in Afghanistan’s rugged border regions.

Kabul, however, denies sheltering any terrorists.

A report published in December 2023 by the independent Islamabad-based Center for Research and Security Studies found that “militant attacks in Pakistan claimed the lives of approximately 500 civilians and an equal number of security forces in 2023.” Those fatality rates are Pakistan’s highest in six years. The report noted that most of the attacks occurred in areas bordering Afghanistan. 

Based on a cautious estimate, at least 36 security officers have been killed in terror incidents so far in 2024. 

Pakistan has long been grappling with internal instability fueled by armed groups that operate from safe havens in the border regions of Afghanistan.

One such group is Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an organization that is banned in Pakistan and considered a global terrorist organization by the US. TTP has waged a 17-year uprising in response to the Pakistani government’s operations against al-Qaida and armed insurgents from Afghanistan.

The resurgence of attacks against security forces has heightened Islamabad’s concerns about cross-border terrorism and its commitment to addressing these threats.

The initial deportation announcement in October 2023 signaled the government’s intent to enforce immigration laws and ensure proper documentation for all residents. However, the sluggish process and criticism from international stakeholders have complicated the policy’s implementation.

On Wednesday, Pakistani Interior Minister Mohsin Raza Naqvi announced the restructuring of Pakistan’s National Counter Terrorism Authority. 

In a statement, Naqvi underscored the “need to widely promote Pakistan’s national narrative against the extremist ideology of terrorists.” He also committed to fully implementing the National Action Plan, a 2014 federal program meant to crack down on terrorism. 

Farzana Shah, a Peshawar-based defense expert specializing in Afghanistan’s armed groups, described the security situation within Pakistan as “highly intricate and volatile.” 

She told The Media Line that the repatriation efforts are part of Pakistan’s attempt to address security threats from the Afghan border region, especially from TTP. 

“Pakistan’s apprehensions regarding Afghanistan’s perceived insufficient commitment to addressing the TTP issue are long-standing and have been communicated through various channels in the past,” Shah said. She added that Afghanistan must respond seriously to Pakistan’s concerns and collaborate. 

Shah said that international stakeholders need to get involved as well. “These efforts are necessary to effectively address Pakistan’s concerns regarding security threats while simultaneously safeguarding the rights and well-being of refugees,” she said.

Israr Ahmed Rajpoot, Rawalpindi-based expert in internal security and Afghan affairs, told The Media Line that Kabul has been treating recent terror attacks in Pakistan as an internal Pakistani problem, even as Islamabad has presented substantial evidence “indicating the presence of terrorism masterminds on Afghan soil.”

“The situation surrounding Pakistan’s decision to reinitiate the repatriation of Afghan refugees must be evaluated within a broader context of regional security concerns and strained bilateral relations,” Rajpoot said. He pointed to the recent military base attack as well as “nearly daily” attacks on security forces in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a Pakistani province on the border with Afghanistan, as examples of ongoing security concerns. 

“Nearly every assault on the security forces traces back to Afghanistan,” Rajpoot said. “In light of these circumstances, Pakistan’s choice to deport Afghan nationals appears to be a confident move.”

Human rights implications

Andy Vermaut, a Brussels-based counter-extremism expert and president of the World Council for Public Diplomacy and Community Dialogue, told The Media Line that the decision to repatriate Afghan citizens “carries considerable human rights implications, especially in a country like Afghanistan, which is still recovering from the aftermath of wars.”

“The mass exodus threatens to worsen an already desperate situation in Afghanistan, a country struggling to rebuild from the massive destruction that war has brought for years,” he said.

Vermaut said that some refugees have been in Pakistan for decades and have multiple generations of children in the country. For refugees like these, repatriating in Afghanistan, “a country they may no longer recognize or have connections with, often inflicts profound emotional and psychological distress,” he explained. 

He called on the international community to get involved. “Safeguarding and providing for the most vulnerable, especially those displaced by conflict, is a collective responsibility that transcends borders and belongs to humanity as a whole,” he said. 

Kamal Alam, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, told The Media Line that terror attacks in Pakistan cannot be attributed to the presence of Afghan refugees in the country. 

“While it may be convenient to blame Afghans, who have resided in Pakistan for over three decades in certain cases, there is no credible intelligence linking the majority of the attacks to the Afghan diaspora,” Alam said. “This is primarily a domestic issue involving militant groups, compounded by a failure to manage relationships within Afghanistan effectively.”

Alam said that multiple Afghan governments have experienced strained relations with Pakistan. “This raises questions about whether Islamabad has failed to understand Kabul’s priorities and desires accurately,” he said. 

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