Approximately 482,000 Afghans residing in Pakistan without valid documents have returned to Afghanistan in just over two months as part of the government's ongoing crackdown on undocumented foreigners. The caretaker interior minister, Sarfraz Bugti, announced this development at a news conference in Islamabad, stating that 90 percent of the returns were voluntary.
This expulsion initiative, initiated two months ago, is a nationwide effort by the Pakistani government, emphasizing that it is not specifically targeting Afghans, although they constitute the majority of undocumented foreigners. Pakistan has historically hosted around 1.7 million Afghan refugees, with many fleeing during the Soviet occupation (1979-1989) and an additional half a million fleeing when the Taliban seized power in August 2021 during the final weeks of the US and NATO withdrawal.
Bugti clarified that, in the initial phase, only undocumented Afghans were being deported, but he hinted at a broader plan, stating that eventually, all Afghan refugees would have to return as they had been hosted by Pakistan for up to 40 years. The abrupt policy shift has strained relations with Afghanistan's Taliban-led administration, which had requested more time for Afghans but faced rejection from Pakistan.
In an unexpected move, Pakistan also decided to deport 10 Afghans who were legally present but engaged in political activities. Bugti emphasized that only Pakistani citizens are allowed to participate in political activities, without disclosing the identities or specific political activities of the deported individuals.
These developments coincide with the visit of US Special Representative for Afghanistan Thomas West to Pakistan. Discussions between West and Pakistan's caretaker Foreign Minister Jalil Abbas Jillani covered various issues, including the ongoing drive against undocumented Afghans. The forced expulsions have sparked criticism from human rights activists, UN officials, and others, urging Pakistan to reconsider its policy.
As panic spreads among the 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan, international aid groups and the UN are providing healthcare and nutrition to returnees in Afghanistan. The Taliban-led administration is also offering assistance to those coming back from Pakistan, adding a layer of complexity to the evolving situation.