I refuse to pull on heartstrings. To write about the boy who cried when he said goodbye to his schoolmates. Or the father who wipes away his and children’s tears as they turn away from the only place they’ve ever really called home.
I refuse to provide evidence of their economic contributions. Of the labourers who built roads, schools, and buildings across Pakistan. Shopkeepers. Traders. Artists. Of the farmers who planted new crops that flourish in the country’s agricultural breadbaskets.
My purpose is not to soften hearts or instil paternalist sentiments toward a perfect victim.Well-meaning people have written these stories before. Today it feels as if we’ve made no difference.
Seeing the humanity of another person should not be a question of whether they are relatable, or not. Deserving or not. Useful or not.Human and political rights are rights universal. Intrinsic. They are inherent to all human beings. No ifs, no buts. And all states have responsibilities to all of the populations within their territories, which includes citizens and non-citizens.
As I write, the government of Pakistan‘s decision to expel Afghan refugees means tens of thousands of Afghans are being thrown out of their homes and communities to cross borders into a homeland they already left or have never been to. Lawyers, civil society organizations, and activists are documenting human rights abuses and the creation of detention centres to round up, hold, and deport Afghans. Inevitably and woefully Pakistani Pashtuns are being dragged into the mix.
These scenes are shameful. Their depravity, however, cannot be understood through morality and human stories alone, devastating as these are. Rather they must be understood as markers of multiple political failures of Pakistan and other actors.
The current caretaker government is, of course, to blame. Their only job is to usher in elections. Instead, they’re implementing an ill-conceived, inhumane, monumental population transfer, without any kind of popular mandate. Visionless, they act as lackeys of powerful forces, without a thought to the lives they’re upending and the long-term implications for peace in the region.
Pakistanis also seem to have forgotten that Afghans are in Pakistan in the first place because of Pakistan’s well-documented interference in Afghanistan. For over 40 years, Afghanistan has faced wars and military occupation. As stated in a global petition against the deportation of Afghans by Pakistan by the Afghan Reparations Collective – a group of experts, scholars and concerned observers – to blame are the repeated failings of Afghan elites, but also, more crucially, the disastrous meddling of global superpowers – the Soviet Union, the US and its Nato allies – and regional neighbours, Pakistan and Iran. These wars “have denied the Afghan people their right to live and thrive in their own country with dignity and as self-determined people.”
Deporting Afghans: Pakistanis themselves are racialised and deported in their thousands from ‘Fortress Europe’ and elsewhere. There, Afghans, Pakistanis, and others are often together in death, regularly drowning while attempting to cross the Mediterranean.
However, deportation is a ‘way of life’ for Afghans across both the Global North and the Global South.
In the 2010s, EU states made aid to Afghanistan conditional on accepting Afghan deportees. A slight pause happened when the Taliban captured Kabul in 2021, but this seems to be over. Germany sent 650 Afghans back in the first half 2023. The UK has told over 1,000 Afghans who fled the Taliban in 2021 with British support that they will be made homeless – this hostile environment is meant to ‘encourage’ (read: coerce) Afghans into ‘self-repatriating’ to Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the UK, Germany, Canada, and the US never really bothered to fully evacuate thousands of ‘in transit’ Afghans in Pakistan in the first place.
Turkey is also deporting thousands of Afghans. Iran too, whilst also allege ly killing and torturing some along the way.
The treatment of Afghans in Pakistan today, then, is not isolated.
However, Pakistan’s mistreatment of Afghans, which has been an important dimension of their experience of exile, is rarely discussed as a form of historical structural discrimination. Afghans are subject to severe forms of racial profiling in Pakistan, which is also in keeping with the Pakistan elite and state’s discrimination against many of its own citizens residing in, or originating from regions bordering Afghanistan, most notably Pashtuns.
DISCRIMINATION: Even at the height of the Afghan-Soviet War, when the Pakistani military state constructed the presence of millions of Afghans in near hagiographic terms, Pakistan’s ‘hospitality’ had its limits: Afghans were never allowed long-term rights in the country.
In the 2000s and 2010s, however, the mistreatment of Afghans has taken on more violent forms. Across Pakistan there have been repeated cases of Afghans facing mass arrests, arbitrary detention, harassment by law-enforcement agencies, and expulsion–in 2017 Human Rights Watch said Pakistan was conducting the “world’s largest unlawful mass forced return of refugees in recent times.”
Before this current attempt at a forced population transfer, it was estimated Pakistan was home to over four million Afghans. But at its peak in the mid-2000s, Pakistan was home to nearly eight million Afghans. Meaning millions already left Pakistan for Afghanistan – or often a third country.
Some of these moves were voluntary. Many, however, were not. In my own work I document how the harassment of Afghans in the 2010s was fundamental in shaping people’s decisions to leave Pakistan.
The international humanitarian and migration regime, represented by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and International Organisation for Migration (IOM) have also enabled years of coercive repatriation that has set the scene for today. Since the mid-2000s, the cornerstone of their Afghan ‘solutions strategy’ has been ‘voluntary repatriation’. This had nothing to do with the actual needs of Afghans, which desperately needed advocacy for legal inclusion, and instead was more about aligning with the politics of Western states keen to globally deport Afghans and construct Afghanistan as a ‘safe country’.
Afghans in Pakistan are legally categorized as either ‘registered refugees’, who are issued a Proof of Registration (POR) ID card, overseen by the government and UNHCR, ‘migrants’ who have an Afghan Citizen card (ACC), overseen by the IOM, visa holders, Afghans ‘in transit’, and tens and thousands of Afghans for whom the government refuses to give any legal status. But these divisions are less about who is actually a refugee or not, and more purposeful attempts by Pakistan to refuse to give Afghans long term legal status and even uphold basic principles of refuge.
Today’s cruelty, then, builds on years of violence that Pakistan has gotten away with, all the while being emboldened by international humanitarian institutions and other states.
The expulsions are also possible because there have never been any legal pathways to integrate a large long-term refugee population within Pakistan – for example, by offering routes to legal residency and/or citizenship.
Whilst many commentators rightly note that Pakistan is not a signatory to the UN refugee conventions and the country doesn’t have a refugee and asylum framework, this is only part of the problem. Pakistan’s citizenship laws do allow anyone born in Pakistan after 1951 is eligible for citizenship, which suggests thousands, if not millions, of Afghans should already be citizens. But, for varying reasons, there is limited political will for equal treatment.
When the government made its deportation announcements, it claimed it only wanted to deport ‘undocumented’ Afghans. But since then, the interim interior minister said there would be several stages of expulsions, first targeting ‘illegal immigrants’, followed by POR and ACC Afghans. Reports are showing that Afghans across all legal statuses and ethnicities – as well as some Pakistani Pashtuns – are being expelled.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
There is still time for the government to change track. There is still time for us, in and outside of Pakistan, to stand in solidarity with Afghans, as a matter of their rights and our obligation, not as charity or humanitarianism.
From the genocide in Gaza to the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan, international law and humanitarianism principles are being flouted. Pakistani citizens are rightly up in arms about the former. Our responses to the latter situation, however, are muted. Yet we must remember that the freedoms and dignity of all oppressed peoples are interconnected.
The writer is the author of ‘Refugee Cities: How Afghans Changed Pakistan’.