Pakistan Bulletin

An up-to-date and informed analyses of key issues of Pakistan.

Pakistan’s Mishandling of Afghan Refugee Crisis

November 2023

Pakistan’s ad hoc decision to initiate deportation of Afghan refugees has invited criticism from the rights groups.

The interim Government of Pakistan declared a crackdown on Afghan refugees, urging those deemed ‘illegally’ present in the country  to leave voluntarily by November 1. Following the expiration of this deadline, law enforcement agencies  conducted raids across Afghan and Pakhtun-dominant communities across Pakistan, leading to the detention of numerous individuals. In a subsequent statement, the Interior Minister, Sarfaraz Bugti, outlined their plan to expel all Afghan refugees living in the country, regardless of whether they possess government-issued documents or not.
While Pakistan has been hosting the Afghan refugees for over 40 years, the decision to expel them on a very short deadline, even when harsh winters are on-setting in the region, is described as politically motivated. Experts link this hasty action to the recent spike in terrorist attacks, attributed to the Afghan Taliban. To justify this action, the state initiated a narrative – largely described as unreasonable by rights groups and the media – suggesting that Afghans in Pakistan bear responsibility for terrorist attacks, murders, and thefts nationwide. Nationalist groups, particularly in Sindh, further assert that the demography of Sindh is being adversely influenced by the Afghans. Despite these claims, both the government and nationalist groups have failed to provide any compelling evidence, relying instead on uncontextualized numbers and hearsay.
The deportation drive led by the “Caretaker government” whose job is to hold free and fair elections within three months of its appointment and supervise smooth transition has further invited suspicions. The present set-up, having exceeded its constitutionally determined tenure, is now contributing to one of the largest forced migrations in South Asian history.  One of the main questions in the recent exodus is, why now?

The decision to deport Afghan refugees, the majority of whom have endured impoverished conditions in the country for decades, has been described as inhuman and an act of scapegoating from worsening economic conditions.

Analysts link the recent move with the poor handling of the economy in the last three years. It has led to the worst poverty crisis in the country following an unprecedented surge in inflation, which has remained unmatched by the corresponding increase in wages. It is widely believed that the faltering economy has compelled the decision-makers to seek a scapegoat for Pakistan’s policy failures. In an attempt to save face and shift the spotlight, the government – backed by the establishment – has decided to target Afghan refugees.
The majority of Afghan refugees have endured impoverished conditions in the country for decades, deprived of access to education, healthcare facilities, and even transport. The Afghan refugees have often been compelled to engage in the most undesirable work in the society, such as picking and sorting through trash. Cities across Pakistan have benefited from their cheap labour.. There have been fewer voices demanding accountability of the assistance received from the UN and foreign governments to support Afghan and Pakistani host communities.
In the geopolitical sphere, Pakistan is exerting pressure on the Afghan Taliban, the group it previously supported when it seized control of Afghanistan by force. While Pakistan welcomed the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the fallout between the two countries is attributed to the failure of the Taliban government in reigning in Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan that unleashed a wave of terrorism on Pakistan’s soil in recent months.

Illegal Raids, Detentions, and Harassment

In the series of crackdowns on Afghan refugees, there have also been reports of harassment of Pakistan’s Pakhtun population. The majority of Afghan refugees in Pakistan belong to Pakhtun (Pashtun) ethnicity. These communities have been separated by the colonial-era Durand Line, modern-day Pakistan and Afghanistan’s border.
The reports of harassment have surfaced in both national and international media outlets such as Dawn, Al Jazeera, and The New Arab. In Karachi, raids and detentions commenced before midnight on November 1, the deportation deadline, and have lasted since. Following the October 3 announcement, national media outlets have featured government-sponsored advertisements calling upon individuals to report those they suspect to be residing  in the country illegally. Law enforcement agencies in Karachi, primarily comprising local police and paramilitary “Rangers”, have been confiscating Afghan Proof of Registration (POR) cards, Afghan Citizen Cards (ACC), and even the Computerised National Identity Cards (CNICs) in a bid to detain individuals and families.those taken to detention centres across the country are being denied access to a lawyer.
Instances of family separation have also been reported. One such case – covering Ram Bibi and her husband Baz Gul – has been reported by The New York Times. On September 12, around three weeks before the October 3 announcement, Baz Gul was picked up by the police while picking through garbage – a common form of labour for most Afghans in the country. Despite having a valid Proof of Registration card, Baz Gul has been deported, leaving his pregnant wife Ram Bibi in Karachi with their three other children.
Pakistani authorities assert that individuals and families taken to detention centres are undergoing  identity verification. Nevertheless, at detention centres , the organisation responsible for identity verification – the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) – has not been provided sufficient devices to carry out this process. In response to this, the caretaker government announced on November 2 that it would prolong the validity of Proof of Residence (POR) cards until 31 December 2023.

Thousands of Afghans transported by Pakistani authorities find themselves with little or no shelter.

Beyond Karachi and at the border crossings to Afghanistan, a humanitarian crisis has unfolded  due to the deportation drive. Thousands of Afghans transported to the border find themselves with little or no shelter in harsh weather conditions. Verification drives at these locations are faltering, pushing people to face exploitation in the form of bribery demands. They have no financial and social support to rebuild their lives in Afghanistan. Many Afghans were born and raised in Pakistan. They have no family or linkages in Afghanistan to start all over again. Women and girls are particularly vulnerable because of the anti-women policies of the Taliban regime.
Pakistan’s handling of the entire episode is viewed as a disregard for human rights. Given the jingoistic statements by political actors and non-representative actions by the government, there is every reason to believe that the move was not unnecessary. Lacking support of elected leadership, the action will  gain Pakistan a negative image for wasting 40 years of goodwill earned over hosting one of the largest refugee populations in the world.

Saeed Husain


The author is an anthropologist of migration and a faculty member at the Aga Khan University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) in Karachi.

Join Our Mailing List

Get the latest news and updates from our team