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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Afghan exodus as deadline to leave Pakistan arrives

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Peshawar,  Pakistan—Hundreds of thousands of Afghans living in Pakistan faced the threat of detention and deportation on Wednesday, as a government deadline for them to leave sparked a mass exodus.

The government has given 1.7 million Afghans it says are living illegally in the country until November 1 to leave voluntarily or be forcibly removed.

On Wednesday, thousands joined a snaking queue that stretched for seven kilometres at the busiest border point, where at least 29,000 had crossed back into Afghanistan the day before.

Authorities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where the majority of Afghan migrants live, will launch a widespread operation to arrest undocumented families who refuse to leave, Feroz Jamal, a spokesman for the provincial government, told AFP.

Forty-nine holding centres, some capable of holding several thousand people, were set to open across the country on Wednesday to process and deport Afghans, state media said.

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A fourteen-year-old Afghan girl, who AFP has not named for security reasons, said she would stay in Pakistan as long as possible, despite not having legal papers.

“We are not going back home, because my education in Afghanistan would come to a grinding halt,” she told AFP in Peshawar.

“Our father has told us that if he is arrested by Pakistani authorities, we should not leave even then. Because we will have no life in Afghanistan.”

Millions of Afghans have poured into Pakistan in recent decades, fleeing a series of violent conflicts, including an estimated 600,000 since the Taliban government seized power in August 2021 and imposed its harsh interpretation of Islamic law.

Pakistan has said the deportations are to protect the country’s “welfare and security” after a sharp rise in attacks, which the government blames on militants operating from Afghanistan.

The policy has widespread support from Pakistanis, observers say, with a protracted refugee presence putting a heavy burden on the country’s infrastructure.

Authorities on the Afghan side of the border have been overwhelmed by the scale of exodus as they attempt to process those returning—some of whom are stepping foot in Afghanistan for the first time in their lives.

Samiullah Samoon, who leads immigration registration at Torkham, said the crossing is facing “an emergency situation”.

After fleeing into Afghanistan, 35-year-old Benafsha, four months pregnant with her seventh child, is waiting to be processed before moving on to their province of origin, Kunduz.

“In Kunduz, we don’t have land, or a home, or work,” said the woman, who was never documented in Pakistan despite living almost all her life in the country.

“We don’t have anything there.”

More than 130,000 people have left Pakistan since the order was given at the start of October, according to border officials in Torkham and Chaman.

On Tuesday, 21,000 were processed in one day in Torkham and 8,000 more in Chaman.

In the capital Islamabad, police have already begun demolishing hundreds of illegally built mud homes where Afghans had been living in poverty.

“Enough is enough, tell us the route and we will arrange a vehicle and leave today. This humiliation is too much,” said 35-year-old Baaz Muhammad, who was born in Pakistan to refugee parents, as he watched a bulldozer raze his home.

In the mega port city of Karachi, Afghans who have lived for generations at a refugee camp have reported weeks of arbitrary arrests and extortion.

Lawyers and activists have said the scale of the crackdown is unprecedented, appealing for Afghans — some of whom have lived for decades in the country — to be given more time to pack up with dignity.

“The Pakistani  government is using threats, abuse, and detention to coerce Afghan asylum seekers without legal status to return to Afghanistan  or face deportation,” Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday.

“The situation in Afghanistan remains dangerous for many who fled, and deportation will expose them to significant security risks, including threats to their lives and well-being.” 

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