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10,000 Afghans flee Pakistan as deadline to leave looms

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Peshawar,  Pakistan—More than 10,000 Afghans living in Pakistan rushed to the borders on Tuesday, just hours before a deadline for 1.7 million people to leave Pakistan voluntarily or face arrest and deportation.

The Pakistan government has said it would begin arresting undocumented Afghans and taking them to new holding centers from Wednesday, from where they will be processed and forcibly returned to Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban government has imposed a harsh interpretation of Islamic law since seizing power in August 2021, banning girls from secondary and university education and forcing women to stay out of work.

While hundreds of thousands of Afghans are estimated to have fled to Pakistan since the Taliban’s return to power, millions more had already settled there over decades of conflict, making Pakistan the host of one of the world’s largest refugee populations.

Despite a gruelling economic crisis in Afghanistan, coupled with the Taliban government’s edicts on women and girls’ rights, Afghans in Pakistan are being forced to return to their home country.

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“Thousands of Afghan refugees are waiting for their turn in vehicles, lorries, and trucks, and the number continues to grow,” Irshad Mohmand, a senior government official at the Torkham border in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province told  AFP.

“More than 10,000 refugees have gathered since morning.”

In Afghanistan, the Taliban government has qualified Pakistan’s policy as “harassment.”

Thousands more Afghans are waiting at the southern Chaman crossing in Balochistan province, officials said — with numbers at both borders expected to double on Wednesday.

Despite huge pressure at the border, a government official based in Peshawar near the border said the holding centres would still open as planned from November 1.

“This procedure does not require much time as they don’t possess passports and visas and don’t need to pass through immigration. In simple words, they are passing through a procedure of deportation,” he told AFP on condition of anonymity. 

But some Afghans are determined to try to find the way to remain in Pakistan, even if it means going under the radar.

A fourteen-year-old Afghan girl, who AFP has not named for security reasons, said she will stay in Pakistan as long as possible, despite not have 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.”

Several schools for Afghan students in the capital Islamabad closed from Tuesday as families went into hiding, teachers told  AFP.

More than 100,000 Afghan migrants have already left Pakistan since the start of October, when the government announced a one-month deadline for Afghans it says are living illegally in the country.

More than 80 percent have left via the northern Torkham border in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where the majority of Afghan migrants live.

Police in the province said they have not yet begun arrests as families leave voluntarily, but Afghan refugees in Karachi and Islamabad have reported arrests, harassment and extortion.

“To avoid any humiliation by the Pakistani authorities I have decided to leave,” Zulfiqar Khan, who was born to refugee parents in a sprawling Peshawar aid camp, told AFP last week.

Lawyers and activists have said the scale of the crackdown is unprecedented, appealing for more time 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.”

Pakistan has said the deportations are to protect the “welfare and security” of the country, where anti-Afghan sentiment has been growing amid prolonged economic hardship and a rise in cross-border militancy.  AFP

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