Why Pakistan Is Deporting Afghan Migrants

In Brief

Why Pakistan Is Deporting Afghan Migrants

Pakistan’s decision to deport undocumented migrants over perceived security risks is poised to affect almost two million Afghans. 

Pakistan’s announcement in October 2023 that it would expel all unregistered migrants has sparked fears among the country’s nearly two million undocumented Afghans that they will be deported back to dangerous conditions. Pakistan says the measure is necessary to stem the growing influence of terrorist groups operating in its border region, but critics, including both the United States and Afghanistan’s Taliban government, warn it could lead to further radicalization. 

What is Pakistan’s deportation policy?

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The deportation order applies to all “unregistered foreigners” remaining in Pakistan as of November 1, 2023. Afghan citizens are most directly affected: more than 4 million reside in Pakistan, and an estimated 1.7 million are undocumented. Many have lived there for decades, having fled Afghanistan in the 1980s during the country’s occupation by the Soviet Union. Smaller numbers of undocumented Somalians and Yemenis living in Pakistan are also threatened by this new policy.  

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To carry out the policy, Pakistan’s government has had to hastily create forty-nine new deportation centers, and conditions there are reportedly grim. Some 15,000 Afghans are crossing the border daily and an estimated 450,000 have already left. Pakistani officials have offered assurance that Afghan residents with legal documentation will not be expelled, but there have been reports that some have been targeted anyway. This has led many legal residents to preemptively flee the country, fearing intimidation by Pakistani authorities and eviction by landlords. Meanwhile, the country’s Supreme Court has begun hearings challenging the order.

Why is Pakistan deporting migrants?

Islamabad says the policy is mainly designed to fight terrorism. The disputed Pakistan-Afghanistan border, also known as the “Durand Line” after the British diplomat who negotiated it, has been home to an array of extremist groups for decades.

A map of Pakistan showing that the majority of major terrorist incidents occurred near the Afghan border

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These include the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, also known as the Pakistani Taliban, and the Islamic State in Khorasan, an offshoot of the broader Islamic State group. Pakistani officials have blamed Afghan nationals for a sharp increase in high-profile terrorist attacks and accused Afghanistan’s Taliban-led government of harboring militants. “A significant portion of those involved in criminal and terrorist activities are among these illegal immigrants,” Pakistan’s interim Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar said in November 2023. 

Some analysts say Pakistan hopes to pressure the Taliban government to take terrorism more seriously. Others point to a desire to reduce the population of ethnic Pashtuns, a sizable minority to which many Afghan migrants belong, and whom Pakistan’s influential military sees as a separatist threat.

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This is not the first time Pakistan has cited security concerns in a migration crackdown: in 2016, it deported some six hundred thousand Afghan migrants. Human Rights Watch called the exodus “the world’s largest unlawful mass forced return of refugees in recent times.” Soon thereafter, Pakistan began building a fence along the Durand Line.

How could Pakistan’s upcoming election impact the debate?

The deportations coincide with a tumultuous political and economic outlook ahead of national elections scheduled for February 2024. 

Pakistan has faced intense polarization since its last elected prime minister, Imran Khan, was ousted from power in 2022 after falling out with the county’s military. His removal spurred mass protests, particularly after he was arrested on charges of fraud a year later. Despite his current incarceration, Khan aims to run again, and could face another ousted prime minister: Nawaz Sharif, who fled to London in 2019 after being charged with corruption and returned in October 2023. However, experts say that the military continues to call the shots behind the scenes. “The military, which exerts heavy influence over the caretaker regime, is likely driving the [deportation] policy,” the Wilson Center’s Michael Kugelman writes.  

Consequently, neither candidate would likely have much room to maneuver on migration, as public opinion remains firmly anti-migrant. Khan, a Pashtun, has reportedly criticized the deportation policy, but as prime minister he was forced to abandon plans for a pathway to citizenship for Afghans following criticism from opposition parties. Sharif, meanwhile, oversaw the 2016 mass expulsion.  

Some analysts say Pakistan’s deepening economic crisis, one of the country’s worst since its independence in 1947, has contributed to anti-immigrant political sentiment. Food and fuel prices have soared, the Pakistani rupee has rapidly depreciated, and the central bank’s supply of foreign exchange reserves has dwindled. Nationwide power outages due to chronic underinvestment in the country’s infrastructure have further shaken the economy; Islamabad has been forced to turn to the International Monetary Fund for $3 billion in loans. The budget crunch has reportedly led the government to charge undocumented migrants an exit fee of $830, more than half the average annual income in Pakistan. 

Groups of Afghan refugees sit atop large trucks at a border crossing between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Afghan migrants gather at the Torkham border crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan in November 2023. Hussain Ali/Anadolu/Getty Images

What have the international reactions been?

The issue has sparked criticism from the United Nations, the United States, and human rights organizations who have called on Islamabad to halt deportations and fulfill international obligations of proper treatment of refugees. Pakistan has never ratified the 1951 Geneva Convention and thus lacks domestic protections for refugees. Nonetheless, legal analysts say the deportations still violate international human rights norms against returning asylum seekers to a dangerous or oppressive situation. 

Rights advocates say Afghanistan certainly meets that criteria as well, and the humanitarian situation has deteriorated further since the Taliban’s 2021 takeover, heightening the threat for refugees in Pakistan facing deportation back to Afghanistan. U.S. officials say they are pursuing U.S. visas for at least twenty-five thousand Afghans at particular risk, including wartime allies, journalists, and women’s rights activists.

The deportations could also further worsen Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan, which has condemned the policy. The financial strain of hundreds of thousands of returnees could complicate aid efforts, given the ongoing Western sanctions on the Taliban. Afghanistan has called for more international assistance, alleging a similar push by Iran to expel its Afghan population, but many donors remain hesitant. Meanwhile, some analysts say that Islamabad’s plan to reduce terrorist attacks by deporting migrants could backfire by fueling grievances and decreasing Kabul’s willingness to cooperate.

Megan Fahrney is an editorial intern at CFR.

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