(New York) – The Pakistani government is using threats, abuse, and detention to coerce Afghan asylum seekers without legal status to return to Afghanistan or face deportation by November 1, 2023, Human Rights Watch said today. Many Afghans at risk of being deported are awaiting resettlement to the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, and Canada.
Pakistan’s Interior Ministry announced on October 3 that all migrants living without legal status in Pakistan had 28 days to leave voluntarily or face deportation. Broad calls by Pakistani officials for mass deportation have instigated increased police abuse against Afghans, including harassment, assault, and arbitrary detention. While not explicitly stated, Afghans slated for deportation are unlikely to be given the opportunity to challenge the action.
“Pakistan’s announced deadline for Afghans to return has led to detentions, beatings, and extortion, leaving thousands of Afghans in fear over their future,” said Fereshta Abbasi, Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The situation in Afghanistan remains dangerous for many who fled, and deportation will expose them to significant security risks, including threats to their lives and well-being.”
Khaliq Atifi, an Afghan refugee in Islamabad who had worked as a sports journalist in Kabul and fled in December 2021, told Human Rights Watch that since the announcement, even Afghans registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are not immune to detention or deportation. “There are police checkpoints everywhere,” he said. “Even if you have a valid visa, you will still be transferred to the police station, and in most cases, you need to pay a bribe to get released.” He said that in most cases, Afghan refugees had to pay between 10,000 and 40,000 Pakistani rupees (US$36 to $144) in bribes to Pakistani police.
Zarmina Rafiee, a women’s rights activist who has been working with the Afghan Red Crescent Society in Afghanistan, described the mental and emotional toll on Afghan refugees living in Pakistan who are facing possible deportation. “Most courses and opportunities for Afghan refugees, especially children, are closing down, and people can’t shop freely out of fear of deportation,” she said. “We can’t sleep, as we have heard that the police raid the houses during the night and ask for documents.”
Nazir Ahmadi, who had worked with NATO-funded projects in Afghanistan and has been in Pakistan for the past 18 months said: “I have nothing there. I have lost everything. If I go back to Afghanistan, there’s also no guarantee for me to stay alive.”
Many Afghans who arrived in Pakistan after the Taliban takeover in August 2021 had been encouraged to apply for resettlement programs in various countries including the US, UK, Canada, and Germany but have been left in a state of limbo with expired Pakistani visas and lengthy resettlement processes making them vulnerable to detention and deportation.
Elias Shafaee, who previously worked for a US-funded project in Afghanistan, said: “Most of these visa processes require you to move to a third country. For a [temporary] US visa, I had to move to Pakistan. Since then, I have been waiting for 15 months with no progress from the US Embassy, and now Pakistan wants to deport me to Afghanistan.”
Afghan women and girls have often faced greater barriers to obtaining resettlement, as destination countries have often prioritized assisting Afghans – overwhelmingly men – who contributed to their military efforts. Niloofar Neda, a doctor and civil society activist, said she felt compelled to leave Afghanistan after the Taliban killed her sister. She said the threat of deportation hangs over her every day: “I live in fear that I can be deported any time. I am waiting for the US embassy to process my visa, which has already taken more than a year.”
Parwana Salihi had worked for more than 10 years with organizations dedicated to women’s empowerment in Afghanistan and had left when she began receiving threats after the Taliban takeover. “I had to leave Afghanistan because it wasn’t safe for people like me,” she said. “And now I live in this fear that I could deported back to Afghanistan any time.”
On October 27, the UNHCR issued a statement raising concerns about the deportation plan and calling for the protection of Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Since Pakistan announced its deportation policy on October 3, the number of Afghans who have left Pakistan, including those who have been registered, has surged. As of October 15, about 60,000 had left Pakistan since the announcement. About 87 percent of them, according to UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration, cited fear of arrest in Pakistan as their reason for going back.
These deportations violate Pakistan’s obligations as a party to the UN Convention Against Torture and under the customary international law principle of nonrefoulment – not to forcibly return people to countries where they face a clear risk of torture or other persecution. Refoulement occurs not only when a refugee is directly rejected or expelled, but also when indirect pressure is so intense that it leads people to believe they have no option but to return to a country where they face a serious risk of harm.
The Pakistani government should end police abuses against Afghan refugees, drop the November 1 deportation deadline, and work with UNHCR to resume registrations of Afghan asylum seekers, Human Rights Watch said. UNHCR issued non-return advisories in 2021, 2022, and 2023, calling for a bar on the forced return of Afghan nationals.
Human Rights Watch has urged the governments of the US, UK, Germany, and Canada to expedite resettlement for Afghans from Pakistan who are particularly at risk, including woman and girls; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people (LGBT); human rights activists; and journalists.
“Pakistan has again unleashed an anti-refugee crackdown to coerce the mass return of Afghans,” Abbasi said. “Countries that promised to provide at-risk Afghans with resettlement abroad should press Pakistan to end its abuses, and they should live up to their own promises to resettle Afghan refugees.”