From Solidarity to Strife
A few months back, Pakistan’s caretaker government ordered all undocumented immigrants, with a primary focus on the estimated 1.7 million Afghan nationals, to leave the country voluntarily by November 1, 2023, or face deportation. This decision sparked international attention due to its potential humanitarian and bilateral consequences. The UNHCR reports that nearly four million Afghan refugees reside in Pakistan, and approximately 700,000 arrived after the Taliban’s return to power. Of these, 1.7 million are deemed to be in Pakistan illegally, living with minimal legal protection and limited access to asylum.
The deportation order is of particular concern to Afghan dissidents and exiles who have sought refuge in Pakistan. Exiled critics of the Taliban worry that they could become victims of the crackdown, as they struggle to escape persecution and violence in Afghanistan.
Afghan refugees have been seeking shelter in neighboring Pakistan for over four decades, with the first major wave arriving in 1979. Over the years, these refugees have settled, returned, and resettled multiple times, often facing uncertain legal status. According to official estimates, there are approximately 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan. However, when considering unregistered refugees and those who arrived after the Taliban’s return to power in 2021, the total Afghan population in Pakistan is believed to exceed three million.
The deportation directive issued by the Pakistani government has generated considerable apprehension owing to its ambiguous and indistinct nature. Although ostensibly targeting “illegal immigrants,” the absence of specific guidelines and a discernible strategy has engendered bewilderment and unease among Afghan refugees. Furthermore, Jan Achakzai, the interim Information Minister of Balochistan, has declared that Pakistan intends to deport not only illegal immigrants but also documented Afghans.
The situation extends beyond the mere expulsion of Afghans from Pakistan, as a pervasive propaganda campaign on both sides is fostering discord among the vulnerable and unsuspecting Afghan and Pakistani populations. In recent years, the schism between ordinary citizens has intensified, with credible sources from both countries indicating that the younger demographic is being systematically conditioned to regard each other as adversaries.
Pakistanis are being indoctrinated with the notion that Afghans are synonymous with terrorism, while Afghans are being inculcated with the belief that Pakistanis bear responsibility for the turmoil in their homeland. Credible sources disclose that educational institutions in Pakistan, particularly those specializing in political science and international relations, are facing pressure to hire faculty from establishment-affiliated think tanks. These entities, acting as puppeteers, disseminate anti-Afghan propaganda steeped in animosity and prejudice among the youth.
The purported Pakistani “instructors” are manipulating the younger generation into believing that Pakistan has self-financed Afghan refugees. However, the ground realities diverge significantly. Pakistan received financial aid from Western nations, notably the United States, during the Zia regime to accommodate Afghan refugees. Subsequently, the USA continued to provide financial support to Pakistan for these refugees. Despite this, the majority of Afghan refugees residing in Pakistan endure abject poverty, with children and women scavenging for sustenance in piles of garbage. The misallocation of U.S. financial aid raises pertinent questions regarding the decision-making authority in Pakistan.
Just a few decades ago, the Pakistani populace was encouraged to embrace an open-border policy, welcoming Muslim brethren with open arms. The abrupt reversal of this sentiment prompts inquiry into the motives driving the political elite’s shift in perspective.
In the midst of state actions, dissent is systematically stifled, with individuals seeking amicable relations and fostering peaceful political and academic connections with Afghan counterparts branded as “anti-state.” Nevertheless, discerning individuals from both nations persist in voicing their concerns, asserting their right to dissent and critique without pledging unwavering allegiance to any tyrannical authority.
Afghan refugees in Pakistan, many of whom are already living in poverty, are being faced with difficult decisions as they are forced to return to a country plagued by violence, economic instability, and human rights violations. The policy is also likely to exacerbate the exclusion and xenophobia faced by Afghans in Pakistan, increasing their vulnerability to hostility and extremism.
Psychological trauma and frustration could push some individuals toward radicalization, contradicting Pakistan’s so-called goal of addressing security concerns through these deportations. Additionally, concerns arise regarding the treatment of Afghan girls and women, as they lose access to education and employment in Afghanistan, a reality that conflicts with the international community’s stance against the Taliban’s restrictions on Afghan women’s rights.
The escalating security challenges in Pakistan, attributed by the government to Afghan refugees, necessitate a well-crafted and efficacious response. However, the expulsion of innocent Afghans poses the risk of further antagonizing elements within the state. The ongoing wave of deportations diverges from the overarching security objective and neglects the fundamental drivers of insecurity in Pakistan. A critical examination compels one to inquire into the underlying issues propelling the decision-making apparatus in Pakistan to widen the Afghan-Pakistani divide.
Afghan refugees, initially hopeful of solidarity and support from Pakistan, now find themselves being perceived as contributors to the prevailing issues. This has fomented unrest among the Afghan population, which must also recognize that the common Pakistani populace has endured significant hardships and is not culpable for the challenges faced by Afghanistan. Authorities in Pakistan also attribute a burgeoning methamphetamine problem to Afghan refugees, contending that it has undermined the economy and engendered security challenges. Critics counter that the fundamental economic stressors in Pakistan are predominantly internal, and targeting Afghan refugees will not redress the root causes.
In recent months, Pakistani authorities have detained and deported thousands of Afghan refugees, instilling fear and uncertainty within the refugee community. Directives to landlords to expel “illegal Afghans” and incentives for information leading to their apprehension have heightened apprehension.
It is imperative for both Afghan and Pakistani citizens to recognize that engaging in hostilities will only serve to escalate the extant challenges. The current course of actions imposed upon the ordinary citizens of Afghanistan and Pakistan may potentially be indicative of a larger, orchestrated strategy. Undeniably, the predicament extends beyond the purview of Pakistan’s immediate security concerns, as the Afghan populace in question has been residing within the country for an extensive period spanning decades. In light of this, fostering an informed populace becomes paramount to prevent inadvertent manipulation, ensuring that both sides are not unwittingly instrumentalized as mere pawns by the authoritative entities within their respective domains. Consequently, the cultivation of knowledge and awareness is imperative to fortify the resilience of individuals against manipulation and to promote a nuanced understanding of the complex dynamics at play.
Taut Bataut – is a researcher and writer that publishes on South Asian geopolitics, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.