Published1 day ago
Pakistan has started to arrest Afghans as the country begins a nationwide crackdown on foreign nationals it says are in the country illegally.
Thousands of Afghans in Pakistan have made their way back to Afghanistan in the last two months. But many of them, who have called Pakistan home for decades, say they have nothing to go back to, while others say they are terrified to be heading back to the Taliban government.
You know you are getting closer to the border when the stream of trucks thickens. Faces old and young watch the road, sitting atop piles of furniture, firewood, cookers and air conditioning units that judder precariously as the vehicles weave through traffic on their way to Afghanistan.
We meet Abdullah at a petrol station in Punjab province. He has hired a truck to bring all 22 of his family members out of the country – 20 of them were born in Pakistan, he says.
“I initially came here when the Russian war started, I used to work in a brick kiln as a labourer. There are fewer job opportunities in Afghanistan,” he tells the BBC.
“I am very sad about leaving my house. I can’t express in words the pain I felt leaving it. Our house was made of mud, and we built it ourselves. I planted many trees there. My neighbours and friends were in tears [when I left] – It’s the cruel government that is making us leave.”
The government says the first wave of deportations will target those without any documentation – adding that the policy is only aimed at those that are in the country illegally. UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, has also reassured that the government will not take action against those with refugee cards.
But Abdullah says he has been targeted despite having an Afghan Citizen Card – an ID issued by the Pakistan government. He brandishes a plastic wallet and shows the cards for his entire family. According to the government’s own website, this counts as an official document.
He says that despite this, the police raided his house and arrested his sons. The BBC could not independently verify this.
“The government says to go back, even though we have these cards. This level of problem has never happened in the past,” Abdullah tells us.
We climb into the truck – sitting on top of tarpaulin bags of belongings are Abdullah’s children, grandchildren and his wife. She didn’t tell us her name, but can’t stop crying.
“We have nothing,” she says in tears.. “We didn’t do anything wrong; we used to work as labour and feed the family.”
A much criticised policy
Pakistan is home to over four million Afghan migrants and refugees, about 1.7 million of whom are undocumented, according to authorities. As Afghanistan’s neighbour, Pakistan has seen people travel across the border for safety for four decades, from the 1979 Soviet invasion through to the more recent return of the Taliban in 2021.
Human rights groups have criticised the deportation policy, including Amnesty international which pointed out that because of considerable delays in the registration process, many new arrivals in Pakistan have not been able to obtain recognised identity documents.
It called on the government to reverse its decision, saying that women and girls in particular would be put in “grave danger” if they returned.
The UNHCR is also concerned that certain groups of people, including minorities, journalists and women, could be at risk. They say they have received assurances from government officials that these groups will not be forced to return.
The organisation has issued slips to those that have approached them for help, in hopes the government will acknowledge them. Some we meet show us their printed slips hopefully, but for now these are not officially recognised by Pakistani authorities.
Despite the criticism, Pakistan’s government has forged ahead. Last week its interior minister announced plans to open centres around the country to help process detainees before deportation, saying that the elderly, children and women would be treated with extra care.
When challenged, the government has pointed out that it is within its rights to follow its own laws. Furthermore its “record of the last forty years in hosting millions of our Afghan brothers and sisters speaks for itself”, according to a foreign ministry spokeswoman.
The Taliban government has urged Pakistan to rethink its “unacceptable” move. The Afghan Ministry of Refugees intends to register returnees and house them in temporary camps, while the Taliban administration will try and find returnees jobs.
But there are worries about how thousands of deportees will impact the economy of a country that is already struggling.
Afghanistan was pushed into economic collapse when the Taliban took over in 2021, and foreign funds that were being given to the previous regime were frozen. The unemployment rate more than doubled from the period immediately before the Taliban takeover to June 2023, according to the World Bank.
UN agencies say around two-thirds of the population is in need of humanitarian aid.
“We’ve just had the earthquake which is impacting heavily on the situation in Afghanistan, and on top of that, winter is approaching so it’s not the best season to have people going back to a country that is already in a very fragile situation,” says Philippa Candler, UNHCR representative in Pakistan.
“We certainly don’t want to see a worsening of the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan as a result of large numbers of people being forced to return.”
The Taliban government announced an amnesty on those who worked for international forces, but there is still a strong sense of fear about what deportation could mean for many we spoke to.
Earlier this year, a UN report said hundreds of former government officials and armed force members were allegedly killed despite assurances from the Taliban of an amnesty.
One woman who was an activist told us in phone messages that she had tried to hide after finding out that the Pakistan police had their details. She said some of her friends had tried to move to villages to give themselves some time.
Another Afghan national -Rehman* – tells us he was part of theAfghan forces and left the country after he says he was beaten by members of the Taliban when they came to power.
“If I go back to Afghanistan, we face death,” he says. “Our lives are in danger. We are living here with one hope, that UNHCR might find a way.”
As we sit, Rehman’s little son curls up in his lap, flicking through his father’s phone and occasionally looking up. His daughter watches carefully from the side.
“I am worried about the future of my children. There is no way for my daughter to study because we don’t have legal documents,” he says.
“We are here without any destiny and unknown future.”
All photographs by Usman Zahid, BBC News
*Names have been changed