ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan’s government announced a major crackdown Tuesday on migrants in the country illegally, saying it would expel them starting next month and raising alarm among foreigners without documentation who include an estimated 1.7 million Afghans.
The country’s caretaker Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti said the crackdown was not aimed at Afghans and would apply to all nationalities, though the vast majority of migrants in the country are Afghans.
The campaign comes amid strained relations between Pakistan and neighboring, Taliban-led Afghanistan over what the Pakistani government says are attacks in Pakistan by Taliban-allied militants who go back and forth across the countries’ shared 2,611-kilometer (1,622-mile) border and who find shelter in Afghanistan.
Bugti said that any migrants in Pakistan illegally should go back to their countries voluntarily before the end of October to avoid mass arrest and forced deportation. He said the government planned to confiscate the property and assets of illegal migrants, and would set up a special phone line to offer rewards to members of the public who tip off authorities about such migrants.
“Anyone living in the country illegally must go back,” he said.
Zabihullah Mujahid, the chief spokesman for the Taliban government, said Wednesday that Pakistan's plans are “unacceptable” and that it should reconsider.
“Afghan refugees are not involved in Pakistan’s security problems. As long as they leave Pakistan voluntarily, that country should tolerate them,” Mujahid said on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Although Pakistani 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 such a major crackdown on illegal immigration.
It was unusual for such a major shift in immigration policy to come during a caretaker government, which is intended to tide the country over during interim periods between the end of a five-year National Assembly and elections. Caretaker Prime Minister Anwaarul-Haq-Kakar took power in August and is supposed to rule until elections planned for the end of January.
A government statement said the new migration policy was endorsed during a high-level meeting Tuesday among Pakistan’s political leadership and the country’s powerful military.
Fazal Rehman, a 57-year-old Afghan fruit seller in the northwestern city of Peshawar, said he arrived in Pakistan 30 years ago and that his children have never been to Afghanistan. He said he had never felt the need to register with Pakistani authorities and now fears it is too late to do so.
“We request the Pakistan government not to expel us in such a hasty way and allow us either to live here peacefully, or we should be given at least six months to one year time to go back,” he said.
Pakistan has been a haven for Afghan refugees since millions fled Afghanistan during the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation, creating one of the world’s largest refugee populations. Additional Afghans have fled since then, including an estimated 100,000 since the Taliban seized control of the country in August 2021.
Currently, there are 4.4 million Afghans living in Pakistan, including an estimated 1.7 million who are unregistered, Bugti said. Any Afghans who have registered with Pakistani authorities need not worry about the crackdown, he said.
Some 2.4 million Afghans have refugee status, Bugti said, which allows them to get a government ID card that they can use for everyday activities like banking or registering for school.
After seizing power in 2021, Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers announced a pardon for Afghans who had fled and urged them to come back, but most of them are staying in Pakistan or elsewhere in hopes of emigrating to other countries including the United States.
Zahid Hussain, an independent Islamabad-based journalist-turned-analyst, said that although the government has stressed that the crackdown isn’t aimed at Afghans, he believes the policy has been prompted by the involvement of Afghans in recent terrorist attacks on Pakistani soil.
Hussain was skeptical that any campaign to expel undocumented migrants could be successful any time soon.
“It will not be an easy task to accomplish as how can you detain or expel 1.7 million unregistered Afghan people? It is going to further strain ties between the two sides,” he said. “Let us see how the government implements the policy about the expulsion of illegal immigrants.”
The outlawed Pakistani Taliban, known as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP, routinely claim attacks on Pakistani security forces. But they have distanced themselves from a pair of suicide bombings last week that took place hours apart and killed 59 people in southwest and northwest areas bordering Afghanistan. Nobody has claimed responsibility for those attacks.
Afghan officials say that Pakistan’s government is targeting Afghan refugees regardless of whether they have documentation to be in the country.
The Afghan Embassy in Islamabad said on X that Pakistani counter-terror police have arrested about 1,000 Afghan refugees in the last two weeks, and that about half of them had travel or immigration documents. It urged Pakistan to stop such operations because of their negative impact on the relationship between the two countries.
Pakistani officials have given no details of such arrests in recent weeks, nor of the charges the suspects would have faced.
Raees Khan, 47, another Afghan refugee who said he didn’t feel the need to register with Pakistani authorities, said he has lived in Peshawar since 2007 and has been working in the transportation industry. He said it would take him much longer than a month to wind down his business and move with his wife and five children.
“I have no idea what is going to happen with us after today’s warning by Pakistan. We face forced expulsion,” Khan said. “This deadline should be extended at least for six months so that we can easily return to our country,” he said.
Riaz Khan reported from Peshawar, Pakistan.