Unexpected objector to Pakistan’s deportation of Afghans - Hindustan Times
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Unexpected objector to Pakistan’s deportation of Afghans

ByHindustan Times
Oct 14, 2023 08:31 PM IST

This article is authored by Tara Kartha, distinguished fellow, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.

As social media and news sites exploded on the Hamas attack on Israel, with opinions from India spanning the entire spectrum, few even noticed that Afghanistan reeled under a severe earthquake, even as Pakistan instituted a violent deportation of Afghans from its country. Even more interesting was the reaction of the Chinese ambassador to this pushing back of refugees literally at gun point, and the announcement of a large package of aid from Beijing. All three issues are of immediate concern to us, and yet none seems to have registered either officially or otherwise.

Afghan migrants
Afghan migrants

Even as Afghanistan went into another downward spiral, after a 6.3 magnitude earthquake hit Herat, Pakistani authorities were finalising further plans to streamline the deportation of Afghan refugees in the country. Pakistan’s caretaker government had announced on October 2, that it would deport all ‘undocumented immigrants’ in a 'phased and orderly' manner if they did not move out voluntarily by November 1st. Despite the ‘voluntary’ call, police action had already begun in removing Afghans, particularly from Sindh, around Karachi and in Islamabad. Lawyers point out that many have valid visas, but the police have confiscated their passports. Horrifying videos show men and boys all looped together with rope like a herd of animals, being led away by police. Pakistan media reports new details, including a task force created to examine ‘fake’ identity cards issued to foreign nationals as well as their properties and businesses, set up illegally. The official position is that refugees were required to stay in 54 refugee camps, (some 44 of which were in Khyber Pakhtukwa) instead of which they spread all over the country. All this is being done by the Interior Ministry who proposes to confiscate Afghan businesses and properties, assisted by the Special Branch and Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD). In Islamabad its worse. The state has given refugees a deadline of 48 hours to shift to camps, demolished two ‘illegal’ settlements, and bulldozed another. The state claims that it is allowing persons with proper documents to stay, but are being e-tagged, in a database was compiled by CTD.

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All this is very efficient, except that these ‘refugees’ were created by decades of Pakistan’s wars in Afghanistan since 1979. Actual numbers are not clear, given a generation of Afghans may have been born here. Around 1.3 million Afghans are registered refugees and 880,000 more have legal status to remain, according to the United Nations figures. But caretaker interior minister Sarfraz Bugti said a further 1.7 million Afghans were in Pakistan illegally. This massive operation predictably got a hugely negative reaction from the Taliban. The Afghan Embassy has charged the government with brutal attacks on Afghans including women and children and stated that some 1000 have been arrested. According to Afghanistan’s department for refugee affairs, some 23,000 Afghans have been expelled by Pakistan in the past 20 days. Zabiullah Mujahid, Taliban spokesperson, called the operation “'unacceptable'. Meanwhile the UN High Commission for Refugees has appealed against the operation, calling it a ‘fundamental human right’ to seek asylum, as have several human rights organisations. The United Arab Emirates has also appealed against this. More dangerously, it is strongly opposed by Pakhtun parliamentarians like Mohsin Dawar and Afrasiab Khattak who warn that this forced removal could backfire against the country. Islamabad, long accused of a racial bias against Pashtuns – now charges the Afghans with assisting (at the very least) in terrorist activity. No refugees have been charged in such activities in any clear case in recent years, though that didn’t prevent the counter-terrorism authorities from arresting some 250 earlier.

Opposition has also come from an unexpected source. China’s brand new ambassador to Afghanistan, Zhao Xing, said bluntly that Pakistan’s ‘wrongful treatment of Afghan refugees is against human right and good neighbourliness’. Zhao has only just been appointed to much acclaim from the Taliban, and has been quick to provide earthquake relief with $200,000 provided by the Red Cross Society of China to its counterpart in Afghanistan. The ambassador also handed over messages of condolences to acting deputy foreign minister Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai from top-level Chinese officials. Beijing is also encouraging Pakistan to mend fences with its neighbour. Pakistan foreign minister Jalil Abbas Jillani met his counterpart Amir Khan Muttaqi on the sidelines of the third Trans-Himalaya Forum for International Cooperation, held at in Xizang city (Tibet), that was hosted by China. Following that meeting, the Pakistan government has issued directives marked to all departments that legitimate refugees, should only leave ‘voluntarily’, warning that Islamabad should not lose goodwill earned in ‘43 years’. The State has also announced earthquake aid to Afghanistan, with this to be coordinated by the army led National Disaster Management Agency. More interestingly, Muttaqi also is reported to have discussed the opening of the Wakhan corridor with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, at the Trans-Himalayan meeting. The Wakhan Corridor itself is about 350 km long and 13–65 kilometres wide as a natural valley between the two mountain ranges, but is formidable to cross. Historically, the Wakhjir pass was a trading route between Badakhshan and Xinjiang used by merchants from Bajaur in the tribal regions of Pakistan. There are indications of an existing tarred road on the Chinese side which stops well short of the north Wakhjir pass, with a dirt track on the other side. Given formidable Chinese engineering capabilities, they might consider this as a alternative though limited route, rather than depend on Pakistan, which is now squarely seen as the ‘enemy’ in Afghanistan. Far easier would be to use existing roads that connect China to Afghanistan via Tajikistan, where it already has a large military presence – its own, and another for the Tajik military funded by it. It seems now China intends to take forward investment initiatives announced earlier like $10 billion investment by a Chinese company in lithium reserves, including as well as infrastructure development to link up with the northern borders, while an oil extraction deal had been signed in the beginning of this year for Amu Darya. With an ambassador now in position, matters already seem to be moving quickly.

It is unclear what the Pakistan army – for that is what the caretaker government is according to its own prime minister – hopes to get out of this massive operation. Facing the worst terrorism crisis in its history – with an 83% rise in August – Islamabad seems to be in the ‘do something’ mode. It may also be a tactic to punish the Taliban, in its apparent refusal to do anything much about the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and then interior minister Perez Khan Khattak blaming the Taliban for 14 of the 24 suicide attacks this year. Pakistan’s push back does come after two bomb blasts on September. 28, 2023, in Balochistan and KP which killed 57. Bugti also chose to call out India’s Research and Analysis Wing, so it does seem that the minister – or rather the army- has his back against the wall. The Taliban plan to keep the refugees in camps in the Lalpor desert in the Nangarhar province which borders Pakistan, which in the end is likely to provide the TTP with as many recruits as it wants. This simple assessment is likely to also have been made in China, which explains its own independent push to engage with the Taliban, rather than rely on the dubious diplomacy of the Pakistanis. In sum, Islamabad has finally succeeded in alienating every one of its neighbours, a task that was beyond the capabilities of even the most dull civilian leader who has taken the reins so far.

This article is authored by Tara Kartha, distinguished fellow, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.

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