ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan will carry out its recently announced plans to deport all migrants who are in the country illegally, including 1.7 million Afghans, in a “phased and orderly manner,” the foreign ministry said Friday.
The statement is likely meant to assuage international concerns and calm fears among Afghan refugees in Pakistan after Islamabad unexpectedly said Tuesday that all migrants — including the Afghans — without valid documentation will have to go back to their countries voluntarily before Oct. 31 to avoid mass arrests and forced deportation.
This sent a wave of panic among those living in this Islamic country without papers and drew widespread condemnation from rights groups. Activists say any forced deportation of Afghans will put them at a grave risk.
Mumtaz Zahra Baloch, the spokesperson for Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Friday the new policy is not aimed at Afghans only.
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“We have been hosting Afghans refugees generously for the past four decades” when millions of them fled Afghanistan during the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation, she said.
Those 1.4 million Afghan nationals who are registered as refugees in Pakistan need not worry, she added.
“Our policy is only about … individuals who are here illegally, no matter what their nationality is,” she added. “But, unfortunately there has been a misunderstanding or misrepresentation and for some reason people have starting associating this with Afghan refugees.”
“The laws in Pakistan are similar to laws in many other countries,” Baloch said.
Amnesty International on Thursday asked Pakistan to allow the Afghans to continue to live in the country while the day before, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ spokesman expressed concerns about the new policy.
“As a matter of principle it is critical that no refugees be sent back without it being a voluntary and dignified return,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York on Wednesday.
In Kabul, the Taliban government’s chief spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, has also criticized Pakistan’s announcement, saying it was “unacceptable” and that Islamabad should reconsider the decision.
Although Pakistani security forces and police have routinely been arresting and deporting Afghans who have sneaked into the country without valid documents in recent years, this is the first time that the government has announced plans for such a major crackdown.
The developments come amid a spike in attacks by the Pakistani Taliban, who have hideouts and bases in Afghanistan but regularly cross into Pakistan to stage attacks on Pakistani forces.
The outlawed Pakistani Taliban, known as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP, often claim attacks on Pakistani security forces. But they have distanced themselves from a pair of suicide bombings last week that killed 59 people in southwest and northwest areas bordering Afghanistan. Nobody has claimed responsibility for those attacks.
Baloch said some of the migrants without papers, including Afghans, have already started going back to their countries. “We are allowing a grace period until” the end of the month, she said.
Pakistan has long demanded that the Taliban authorities in Afghanistan cease their support for the TTP.
The Pakistani Taliban are a separate group but are allied with the Afghan Taliban, who seized control of Afghanistan in mid-August 2021 as U.S. and NATO forces were in the last weeks of their withdrawal from the country, after 20 years of war. The takeover has emboldened the TTP.
Baloch also said that Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Jalil Abbas Jilani held talks in China, where he is currently on an official visit, with Afghanistan’s Taliban-appointed Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi.
“Their meeting was very productive, she said without elaborating and urged the Afghan Taliban to disarm the TTP so that the Afghan territory would no longer be a launching pad for attacks in Pakistan.
She, however, insisted that the planned crackdown on migrants who are in Pakistan without proper authorization was not aimed at bargaining with the Afghan Taliban authorities.
“Absolutely, this is not the case all … we only want all illegal migrants to go back,” she said.