Legalities and Security: Understanding Pakistan’s Approach to Afghan Refugees

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A group of Afghan refugees are pictured protesting in Islamabad, Pakistan, on May 19, 2022, demanding the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to register them and help their asylum seeking process in Europe.

By: Ayesha Khan   16 November 2023

The current situation in Pakistan concerning Afghan refugees demands a thorough examination to comprehend the intricate layers of this complex issue. The surge in the Afghan national population in Pakistan to 3.7 million necessitates a critical analysis of policy changes, demographic statistics, and the rationale behind recent decisions. This essay aims to provide a nuanced understanding of Pakistan’s evolving approach to Afghan refugees, particularly focusing on the recent decision to expel 1.7 million Afghan nationals without proper documentation.

Pakistan’s long-standing tradition of hospitality towards refugees, especially Afghans, has been commendable. Over the years, the country has welcomed millions fleeing conflict and instability in Afghanistan. However, the recent decision to expel a significant portion of the Afghan population reflects a departure from this historical generosity. This shift is attributed to the economic and security challenges posed by hosting a large number of illegal immigrants.

A pivotal aspect of this issue is the distinction between legal refugees and illegal immigrants. The government’s decision to target individuals without Proof of Registration (PoR) or the Afghanistan Citizen Card (ACC) signifies a measured response. The issuance of the ACC to approximately 880,000 refugees underscores an attempt to regularize their status, recognizing the enduring ties between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The narrative that Pakistan’s decision is solely directed at Afghan citizens is misleading. Instead, it is a response to the broader challenge of managing illegal immigrants of any nationality. This aligns with international norms, emphasizing Pakistan’s commitment to lawful migration processes. The clarification that the decision is not against Afghans or Pushtuns but rather against illegal immigrants dispels misconceptions surrounding the government’s intentions.

Contrary to speculation, Pakistan asserts that its national policy on Afghan refugees remains unchanged. The decision is portrayed as a response to economic and security challenges rather than a targeted effort against Afghan refugees. Emphasis is placed on the need for repatriation, supported by reports of improved economic and security conditions in Afghanistan, making the return of Afghan citizens a plausible and ethical choice.

Acknowledging the strain on its resources, Pakistan asserts its right to send illegal immigrants back to their country, aligning its practices with global norms. The prolonged hosting of a large refugee population without legal status has created opportunities for illegal activities and security risks, posing a threat to Pakistani citizens. Intelligence reports supporting the claim that Afghan nationals have contributed to security issues further justify the decision.

Despite over four decades of generosity, Pakistan argues that the International Afghan Government (IAG) has not reciprocated in preserving goodwill. The policy of phased and time-bound repatriation is positioned as a pragmatic approach, balancing the humanitarian legacy with current security imperatives.

Highlighting that the deportation of aliens by host countries is a global norm, Pakistan situates its decision in a broader international context. Examples of other nations, including Iran, Turkey, the US, and India, deporting Afghan refugees in 2023, position Pakistan as part of a collective international practice. Maintaining diplomatic engagement with Afghan authorities, Pakistan expresses its commitment to bilateral cooperation, particularly in facilitating the safe return of illegal Afghan immigrants.

In conclusion, Pakistan’s approach to Afghan refugees represents a delicate balance between its humanitarian legacy and current security challenges. The decision to expel a specific segment of the Afghan population is rooted in the need to address economic constraints, security threats, and adherence to international norms. It is imperative to consider these nuanced factors while evaluating the evolving dynamics of the Afghan refugee situation in Pakistan. As the geopolitical landscape continues to shift, finding a sustainable solution that respects humanitarian principles while safeguarding national interests remains a complex yet essential task for all stakeholders involved.

The writer is an independent analyst based out of Islamabad, Pakistan.