More than 165,000 Afghans have fled Pakistan in the month since its government ordered 1.7 million people to leave or face arrest and deportation, officials said Thursday.
The majority rushed to the border in the past several days as the November 1 deadline approached and police began to open up dozens of holding centres to detain arrested Afghans.
Authorities on the Afghan side of the border have been overwhelmed by the scale of the exodus as they attempt to process those returning — some of whom are setting foot in Afghanistan for the first time in their lives.
“We are constantly in contact with them (Pakistani authorities) asking for more time. People must be allowed to return with dignity,” the Taliban government’s refugees minister Khalil Haqqani told AFP.
“They should not give Afghans a hard time, they should not make more enemies,” he said at a temporary processing centre, which opened overnight Wednesday.
Taliban authorities set up the centre several kilometres from a border crossing, as well as camps for families with nowhere to go, after a bottleneck there sparked an “emergency situation” for thousands of stranded people, an official said.
Meanwhile, Pakistani authorities detained hundreds of Afghans on Thursday, with officials vowing to keep up their immigration crackdown, and encouraging undocumented Afghans to continue leaving voluntarily.
“Illegal Afghans arrived at Torkham in heavy numbers because of the deadline… People can still return voluntarily but today only 1,000 are present at the border,” Abdul Nasir Khan, deputy commissioner of the border district, told AFP.
At the country’s busiest border crossing at Torkham in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, officials worked into the early hours of Thursday to clear a queue of 28,000 people that stretched for seven kilometres (four miles).
Just over 129,000 have fled from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the provincial home department said, while a total of 38,100 have crossed through Chaman in Balochistan province, border officials there told AFP.
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 its “welfare and security” after a sharp rise in attacks, which the government blames on militants operating from Afghanistan.
Analysts say it’s likely a pressure tactic to force the Taliban government to cooperate on security issues.
The Afghan embassy in Islamabad has said the move will further damage relations between the neighbouring nations.
More than 100 people were detained in one police operation in the mega city of Karachi on Thursday, while police rounded up 425 Afghans in Quetta, the city closest to the Chaman border crossing.
“The campaign against illegal immigrants will continue,” Saad Bin Asad, the deputy commissioner of the city, told AFP.
Lawyers and rights groups have accused the Pakistani government of using threats, abuse and detention to coerce Afghan asylum seekers to leave while Afghans have reported weeks of arbitrary arrests and extortion.
“The constitution of Pakistan gives every person who is present on this soil the right to a fair trial, but these refugees have been denied that right,” said Moniza Kakar, a Karachi-based human rights lawyer.
The expulsion of undocumented Afghans, however, has widespread support from Pakistanis, analysts say, with a protracted refugee presence putting a heavy burden on the country’s infrastructure.