Taking the complex path

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Pakistan, a nation that has graciously hosted millions of Afghan refugees for decades, is now at a crossroads. The decades-long saga, beginning with the Soviet invasion and culminating in the fall of Kabul to the Taliban regime in 2021, has led to a significant shift in Pakistan’s approach towards Afghan refugees. The country has initiated an expeditious repatriation program aimed at identifying and expelling all illegal foreign nationals, including Afghan citizens. If implemented in letter and spirit, this program could be the largest repatriation effort in the history of the region and the organizations working under the United Nations umbrella.
For many years, Pakistan held an open-door policy towards Afghan refugees, providing shelter and support to those fleeing conflict and instability in their homeland. However, a critical transition has taken place, as Pakistan now shifts from being a hospitable host to a country actively targeting illegal immigrants.
The deadline for voluntary repatriation ended on November 1, and some in Pakistan are skeptical about the effectiveness of this program. They argue that the porous Pakistan Afghanistan border may make it difficult for law enforcement agencies to prevent new refugees from entering, despite the change in the country’s policy towards them.
Furthermore, the international humanitarian community and human rights organizations have called on Pakistan to continue protecting vulnerable Afghans who have sought safety within its borders. These individuals could face imminent risks if forced to return to Afghanistan, especially given the uncertain and volatile situation in the country.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has emphasized the importance of safeguarding refugees’ rights to shelter, healthcare and legal counsel. Reports of Afghan refugee settlements being razed and occupants summarily evicted have raised concerns about their well-being.
As the deadline for the voluntary return of illegal residents ends, some have already left Pakistan, and authorities report that thousands are returning to their respective nations. Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government has identified and mapped tens of thousands of illegal residents under a comprehensive plan, and other provinces are following suit.
The need for this shift in policy is not without its justifications. Reports suggest that undocumented foreign nationals, including Afghans, pose a security threat, particularly in border areas, where revulsion towards their presence has grown. Non-state actors are reportedly taking refuge among these vulnerable individuals, exacerbating security concerns.
Pakistan has been a gracious host to Afghan refugees for over four decades, doing its utmost within its limited resources to support its neighbor’s citizens. However, the evolving situation and pressing issues demand the state’s attention to ensure its own security and peace. The path forward is complex, but addressing these challenges is vital to strike a balance between humanitarianism and national interests. Pakistan’s new stance on illegal immigrants, including Afghan refugees, represents a turning point in its history, and the world will be watching closely as it navigates this intricate terrain.