More than 20,000 Afghans living in Pakistan rushed to the borders on Tuesday, ahead of a government deadline for 1.7 million undocumented people to leave or face arrest and deportation.
Millions of Afghans have poured into Pakistan, fleeing decades of successive conflicts, including an estimated 600,000 since the Taliban government seized power in August 2021 and imposed its harsh interpretation of Islamic law.
The Pakistan government has said from Wednesday it would begin arresting undocumented Afghans who refuse to leave and taking them to new holding centres, from where they will be processed and forcibly returned to Afghanistan.
Afghans would be allowed to leave voluntarily until the November 1 deadline, after which staggered deportations will begin from Thursday, Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti said in a video statement.
“Only those people who are completely illegal will leave Pakistan,” he said on Tuesday afternoon.
At least 18,000 people had joined a snaking, seven-kilometre-long queue at the Torkham border in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province by Tuesday afternoon, Irshad Mohmand, a senior government official said.
Another 5,000 people had arrived at the southern Chaman crossing in Balochistan, border officials there said.
“Thousands of Afghan refugees are waiting for their turn in vehicles, lorries and trucks, and the number continues to grow,” Mohmand told AFP.
Once over the border, they face a further bottleneck as they must register with Afghan officials.
The Taliban government’s defence minister Mullah Yaqoob said Pakistan’s policy was “cruel and barbaric”.
‘Not going back home’
A spokesman for the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial government said holding centres where Afghans would be held for one or two days for processing, would open from November 1.
“If someone refuses (to leave) they will be detained and deported. The combing operation against illegal Afghans will start from tomorrow,” Feroz Jamal told AFP on Tuesday.
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 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.”
Several schools for Afghan students in the capital Islamabad closed from Tuesday as families went into hiding, teachers told AFP.
Police and government officials in the city also oversaw the demolition of hundreds on Tuesday of illegally built mud houses 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.
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.
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.
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.”