Why are millions of Afghans fleeing Pakistan?

Vast numbers of undocumented Afghan migrants have fled Pakistan to avoid arrest and forced deportation ahead of a 1 November (today) deadline.

28 days ago, Pakistan ordered all unregistered migrants (including more than 2 million Afghans) to return to their countries of origin by today.

Some 600,000 Afghans had crossed into Pakistan after the Taliban’s return in 2021, often fearing Taliban rule and its associated reprisals.

Others have lived in Pakistan for decades or were even born there after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, with few real ties to Afghanistan.

So the UN has warned that Pakistan is risking a “human rights catastrophe”.

But Pakistan says it’s responding to security concerns, claiming 14 of the 24 suicide bombings since February have been carried out by Afghan nationals. Both the Taliban and the US have denied any role by Afghan refugees.

Intrigue’s take: Aside from the stark ethical dimension here, there’s a heady mix of politics and geopolitics at play.

On politics, Pakistan’s caretaker government is meant to be arranging fair elections, but it’s seen as a continuation of the last unpopular administration.

On geopolitics, Pakistan’s erstwhile support for the Taliban has backfired, with the group’s local affiliates fuelling a violent insurgency in Pakistan.

So this mass deportation order partly looks like an attempt to bolster legitimacy at home, while pressuring the Taliban to change its tune abroad.

There’s evidence it’s popular with Pakistanis weary of hosting millions of Afghans, but it’s hard to see the Taliban becoming a better neighbour as a result.

Also worth noting: 

  • Pakistan has defended the move as an “exercise of Pakistan’s sovereign domestic laws”, while calling on the world to help.
  • There are an additional 1.4 million documented Afghan migrants and refugees who Pakistan says may stay in the country.
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