Hostage Diplomacy or Political Maneuver: Pakistan Increases Pressure on Afghan Refugees

By: Amin Kawa

Following the border tensions with the Taliban, Pakistan has intensified its pressure on Afghan refugees. Pakistan’s Prime Minister, in announcing a new migration policy, emphasized that individuals lacking visas would be repatriated to their home country. He attributed social issues and the strengthening of terrorism to his nation’s previous lenient stance toward refugees. In line with this directive, the police detained over 200 individuals from the I-11/4 area in Islamabad yesterday, and this process continues without interruption. Furthermore, the Caretaker government of Pakistan has raised fees for visa extensions, exit permits, and penalties for residency delays. Afghan refugees, on the other hand, report encountering police confrontations and pressure, resulting in considerable distress. Since the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, more than 600,000 Afghan citizens have sought refuge in Pakistan. Before this, over two million migrants had obtained migration cards from the United Nations, and their legal status expired in January 2023, leaving millions of Afghan migrants susceptible to forced deportation and imprisonment.

Anwar-ul-Haq Kakar, the Caretaker Prime Minister of Pakistan, has stated that an effective policy has been implemented to prevent the illegal entry of Afghans into Pakistan. He emphasized that the new policy of the country has changed regarding individuals with legal documents, those without documents, and those who have created fake identities.

The Caretaker Prime Minister of Pakistan further added that refugees without legal documents will no longer have the right to reside in the country. According to him, Pakistan’s lenient approach towards refugees has changed, and they must enter Pakistan through visa acquisition and legal means. He also noted that Pakistan’s past approach to migrants has led to social problems and strengthened terrorist groups in the country.

This comes as the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) of Pakistan has reported that the country has 27 entry and exit points, including 13 airports, 5 land routes, 4 seaports, and 2 railway stations. According to this agency, those who enter Pakistan through illegal means will either be deported or detained.

Pakistan has issued orders for the forced deportation and detention of millions of Afghan migrants just as, following the Taliban’s takeover, thousands have sought refuge in Pakistan due to concerns about reprisals by the group. According to reports from international human rights organizations, the Taliban have continued to detain, torture, and kill former military personnel, journalists, civil activists, women protesters, and political and intellectual opponents over the past two years.

Afghan refugees in Pakistan claim that survival in this country has become challenging for them. They emphasize that Islamabad’s policies towards refugees contradict human rights values and good neighborly relations. According to their accounts, Pakistani police enter their homes at night and even take those with visas, leaving them in exchange for money.

Ahmad Moddasir, one of the Afghan refugees in Islamabad, says, “I wish the police would request documents as law enforcers. Pakistani police believe that Afghans have cash boxes of dollars in their homes and they raid them. Before checking passports and visas, they search our rooms and suitcases. They do not respect privacy, enter women and children’s rooms while everyone is asleep.”

These refugees express their appreciation for the hospitality of the government and people of this country, who have opened their arms to the people of Afghanistan for over four decades, and they still hope for more humane policies in this regard. Afghan refugees in Pakistan demand facilities for visa issuance and extension. They point out that visa extensions are free, but no refugee can obtain them legally.

Shamsiya (pseudonym) is one of the women protesters. She has fled to Pakistan after being pursued by the Taliban. Shamsiya says, “We want our visas to be extended on time. Months have passed since our registration for visa extension, but they won’t issue visas until we pay in the black market. Our request from the Pakistani government is to reduce corruption in this regard and create a suitable and logical solution to prevent theft.”

Afghan refugees in Pakistan are complaining about the illegal detention process and the actions of the police in this country. Pakistan currently lacks domestic legislation for asylum, and it has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol on the Status of Refugees, thus not officially recognizing the rights of refugees based on the provisions of these documents.

On the other hand, Pakistan, in response to extensive pressures on Afghan refugees, has imposed exorbitant fees for visa extension delays. The Pakistani Ministry of Interior has stated that there is no amnesty for paying extra residency fees, and migrants are required to apply for an extension one month before the expiry date of their visa. According to the new directive, migrants who do not renew their residence visas for more than two weeks will be subject to fines. The table below provides a detailed description of visa extensions in the past and the current timeframe, ranging from two weeks to one year.

In the new directive from the Pakistani Ministry of Interior, it is stated that no additional fees will be charged for children up to the age of 12. However, those aged 13 to 18 must pay 50% of the visa extension fine.

Meanwhile, the US-Pakistan Cooperation on Afghan Refugee Management, referring to the presence of over 600,000 Afghan refugees in Pakistan following the Taliban’s takeover, has reported that the economic growth of this country for the fiscal year 2023 is projected to decrease from 2% to 0.29%. According to this agency, Pakistan’s pressure to provide housing, livelihood, education, and facilities for refugees will not yield positive results.

This office has stated that up to January 2022, three million Afghan migrants were living in various Pakistani cities, among whom 1.4 million have Proof of Registration (PoR) cards and 840,000 others hold Afghan Citizen Cards (ACC). The validity date of PoR cards or Proof of Registration cards expired in January 2023, but they have not been renewed so far.

On July 20 of this year, Pakistani government authorities issued a directive for the mandatory deportation of holders of these cards. It has been stated that the extension of these documents is conditional on an agreement between Pakistan and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

It should be noted that in the event of non-extension of these documents, millions of Afghan migrants are at risk of detention and forced expulsion. According to information from this agency, 7,750 undocumented Afghans are living in Pakistan, who are subject to detention, expulsion, and fines under the 1964 law.

The United Nations has reported that from August 15, 2021, to February 2023, 251,000 Afghan individuals have registered and applied for asylum with the UNHCR office in Pakistan, which requires a budget of $176 million for the fiscal year 2023.

After the return of the Taliban to power, thousands of Afghan citizens have sought refuge in Pakistan and neighboring countries. Refugees in these countries, alongside economic difficulties and the hardships of displacement, complain about the treatment by the host country’s police and the imposition of strict restrictions. They say that the agony of homelessness, suffering, and the sense of statelessness on one hand, and the increasing difficulties and the creation of challenges in the host society on the other hand, have exhausted them.

Afghan refugees in Pakistan state that with every security incident or the emergence of a political challenge between Pakistan and the Taliban group, Pakistan uses them as a tool of pressure in its political negotiations. They expect that the policy of hostage-taking of migrants will come to an end.