Pakistan’s policy toward Afghan refugees has been a delicate balancing act, navigating socio-economic and security burdens associated with hosting a substantial refugee population. Amidst ongoing challenges posed by the Afghan conflict and new waves of displacement, Pakistan grappled with the task of managing refugees while addressing internal issues.

Achieving a balance between humanitarian considerations, security imperatives, and the well-being of both refugees and host communities remains a complex and multifaceted endeavor.

To date, millions of migrants and refugees have departed from their homelands, driven by the imperative to find refuge amidst political, social, and economic upheavals, violence, conflicts, human rights violations, natural disasters, and persecution.

War and Conflict:

Prolonged conflict and violence within Afghanistan have triggered numerous waves of refugees flowing into neighbouring states, particularly Pakistan. The narrative of Afghan refugees in Pakistan unfolds over four decades, when Afghans initiated their escape from the violence within their homeland, seeking refuge across nearby borders. Over 400,000 individuals fled the brutality of the Communist-led government, making their way into Pakistan. The initial wave of refugees surged following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, propelling over three million Afghans to seek sanctuary in Pakistan.

The conflict involving Afghan soldiers, Soviet forces, and the Mujahideen fostered an unstable environment for daily life. Subsequently, around 100,000 Soviet soldiers swiftly assumed control of major cities and highways, leading to a broad rebellion. The Soviets, responding harshly, targeted Mujahideen rebels and their supporters, resorting to the destruction of entire villages to eliminate safe havens for their adversaries.  Another wave of migration ensued in 1992 as the mujahedeen captured Kabul, followed by a third wave in 1996 and beyond when the Taliban seized control of Kabul.

The resumption of civil war forced civilians into a situation where migration seemed the only viable option. Before the U.S. invasion in 2001, the conflict in Afghanistan had already inflicted significant harm, leading to the death, injury, or displacement of half the population. In late 2001, the United States intervened to eradicate al Qaeda, remove the Taliban from power, and subsequently engaged in prolonged efforts to stabilize the nation and establish a democratic government.

Even before the withdrawal of international forces and diplomatic missions, along with the Taliban assuming control in August 2021, Afghanistan represented one of the world’s most extensive and intricate humanitarian crises (CHEs).

Over two years post-withdrawal, despite substantial humanitarian aid influx, substantial needs persist. Following the Taliban’s return to power in 2021, global entities have implemented strategies of political and economic isolation towards Afghanistan, responding to the Taliban’s increasingly restrictive governance.

These measures have contributed to the ongoing economic crisis and the populace’s dependence on humanitarian aid, pushing over 28 million people to the brink of survival. The economic crisis worsening further due to the political crisis proved to be one of the causes of immigration. Furthermore, the imposition of numerous rules and policies by the Taliban, violating fundamental rights of women and girls, such as freedom of movement, the right to work, livelihood, education, and healthcare, stands as a significant factor compelling citizens to leave their homeland.

Natural Disasters and Climatic Factors:

Climate-induced migration often lacks the attention it merits in Afghanistan. Even within the realm of climate-induced migration, the predominant focus is on displacement stemming from sudden-onset natural disasters like floods. There is insufficient consideration given to migration arising from the enduring consequences of a changing climate, such as diminished agricultural productivity. The interplay of conflicts and natural disasters has led to heightened levels of poverty and vulnerability among the population. Persistent conflict restrains economic growth, while political instability continues to impede the nation’s development.

The fundamental challenge stems from Afghanistan’s susceptibility to natural disasters and environmental changes. This includes challenges such as droughts and floods, disrupting livelihoods, rendering agriculture less viable, inciting food insecurity, and propelling internal displacement. A drought- and famine-like situation in the 1990s contributed to a sustained influx of refugees, denoted as the fourth wave.

These environmental stressors compound existing difficulties, amplifying economic instability and susceptibility to extremism. To survive in such circumstances, communities are compelled to migrate either internally or across borders. Following the departure of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan, the nation endured its second significant drought in three years, resulting in a 40% loss of crops and pushing more individuals toward forced migration. Migration represents just one among several potential responses to these challenges, but given the persisting issues of injustice, economic instability, and environmental volatility, it is likely that a growing number of Afghans will continue seeking safety outside their homes.

Impacts on National Security:

Pak-Afghan relations have long been marked by political, defense, and security challenges, exacerbated by a porous border facilitating the movement of militants and refugees. The bilateral relations face challenges with the presence of illegal Afghan refugees in Pakistan, posing a potential threat to national security. The presence of insurgent groups in border regions has proved to be a challenge for the future of the region. Pakistan’s alleged support for these groups such as the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP) and disputes over border delineation have further added tension.

Despite historical and cultural ties, recent years have seen both countries making efforts to improve relations and address common security concerns.

The National Internal Security Policy (NISP) report (2014-2018) depicted Afghan refugees in Pakistan as a potential source of extremism and security threats, emphasizing the government’s securitization approach towards this population post-9/11. The migration of Afghan refugees to Pakistan is a complex issue with multifaceted implications.

The security dimensions of this exodus have been accentuated by factors such as the global security context of irregular migration and trafficking, as well as the domestic security considerations related to the perception of migrants as potential threats to employment, economic resources, social harmony, and the overall order of the host nation.

The Pakistani government views Afghan refugees as an economic strain on society, particularly since the majority of the refugee population consists of elderly individuals, women, and children. Conversely, a significant number of refugees secured employment opportunities and started earning income. While this contributed to the overall revenue and income generation, it proved insufficient to bolster the economy substantially. The availability of inexpensive Afghan labor introduced competition with the local population for resources such as land, water, food, jobs, and property. The presence of refugees led to a decline in wages as they were willing to work for lower remuneration.

In addition to this, Afghan refugees bear the blame for the inadequate infrastructure and financial difficulties faced by Pakistan due to their large numbers. The existing scarcity of resources had to be shared between the local population and the refugee influx. Despite assistance from organizations like the UNHCR, the aid provided has not been enough to meet the financial requirements of the refugee population.

In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) and Baluchistan, less developed provinces, the influx of Afghan refugees has created difficulties for the local population. Despite potential economic benefits for the government, citizens with lower incomes face increased economic competition with refugees, leading to rising inflation.

A notable economic repercussion highlighted by locals is the lack of tax collection from Afghan refugee traders, posing challenges for the local taxpayers.

The media, political figures, and citizens of Pakistan have consistently criticized Afghan refugees for allegedly importing social issues from Afghanistan into Pakistan since their initial migration. Accusations include fostering criminal activities, drug smuggling, and weaponization within Pakistani society. Beyond these concerns, they have also faced censure for disrupting the demographic, ethnic, linguistic, and sectarian equilibrium in the regions of Pakistan where they have resettled.

Moreover, Afghan refugees have faced allegations of collaborating with the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s Intelligence Agency. The perceived connection between Indian and Afghan intelligence, as viewed by Pakistani security agencies, is regarded as a security threat. Post-9/11, Afghan refugees in Pakistan are securitized due to this association, potentially being exploited to fulfil strategic objectives. The Pakistani security establishment widely asserts that India’s presence in Afghanistan is geared towards fostering instability in Pakistan by financially supporting militant groups to carry out terrorist activities.

On October 3, the interim government of Pakistan declared its intention to conduct widespread deportations of 1.4 million undocumented Afghan refugees, officially termed an Illegal Foreigners Repatriation Plan, urging all relevant individuals to depart the country by November 1. The deadline for residing in Pakistan has been further extended until the end of March. After this period, individuals must either depart from Pakistan or adhere to a new plan.

Pakistan’s move to deport Afghan immigrants is driven by two primary goals. Firstly, it seeks to exert pressure on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, compelling cooperation to thwart cross-border attacks—a demand the Taliban has been resistant to fulfilling. Secondly, Islamabad alleges that Afghan immigrants play a role in smuggling $5 million worth of US dollars daily, exacerbating Pakistan’s economic challenges.

The crackdown on Afghan businesses and deportations aims to stem these activities, averting further strain on Pakistan’s economy while addressing security concerns.

The deportation of Afghan illegal immigrants by Pakistan has ignited a discourse surrounding the matter. The significant influx of unauthorized immigrants into Pakistan has raised concerns regarding economic, social, and security implications. After thorough deliberation, and with Pakistan’s national, economic, and security interests at heart, the decision to repatriate them was made.

Ensuring the nation’s long-term stability and addressing challenges posed by undocumented migrants are the aims of this decision. Pakistan aims to rectify any past instances of visa policy ambiguity and establish an immigration system that is suitable and internationally recognized, aligning with practices observed in other countries. Most importantly, a cooperative defense strategy involving effective border management and counter-terrorism efforts is crucial for regional stability and mutual security interests.

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