NationalVOLUME 19 ISSUE # 2

Repatriation challenges and security concerns

Pakistan is ostensibly adhering resolutely to its key policy decision to repatriate all illegal foreigners, primarily focusing on millions of Afghan refugees. Simultaneously, the country has extended the stay for ‘legal’ or documented Afghans engaged in living, conducting businesses, and working in Pakistan. While the proactive enforcement of the policy to repatriate illegal Afghans is a commendable step, the extension of stay for documented Afghans suggests a lingering policy confusion, particularly concerning the three million additional Afghans residing in Pakistan.

Since Pakistan’s pivotal policy decision on October 3 to repatriate approximately 1.7 million officially recognized illegal Afghans, over 300,000 have voluntarily returned to Afghanistan. Following the expiration of the deadline for voluntary returns on November 1, Islamabad has initiated the forceful deportation of Afghans. The government’s commitment to repatriating illegal Afghans is apparent. This decision, arguably overdue, has been acknowledged by caretaker Prime Minister Anwar-ul-Haq Kakar. However, the extension of stay for documented Afghans registered with the Pakistan National Data Registration Authority (NADRA), holding Proof of Registration (PoR) cards, reveals a conspicuous policy ambiguity. Understandably, while expelling illegal Afghans, Pakistan cannot risk abruptly sending back all Afghans officially numbering 4.4 million, with the actual count likely much higher.

Nonetheless, when granting an extension in stay to legal or documented Afghans, Pakistan should have presented a clear roadmap stipulating their compulsory repatriation after six months if deemed necessary. This is crucial as Pakistan has repeatedly extended the stay of documented Afghans, creating an expectation of automatic extensions after each deadline expiration.

It is essential to note that Pakistan’s decision to repatriate illegal Afghans stems from concerns about Afghan involvement in terrorism and anti-state activities, including suicide attacks. While repatriating 1.7 million illegal Afghans would reduce security threats, it is not a lasting solution, as documented Afghan refugees have been implicated in illicit activities in Pakistan.

For almost four decades, millions of Afghan refugees, at one point reaching nearly four and a half million, constituted the world’s largest refugee population. They enjoyed freedom of movement and activities in Pakistan, contributing to economic losses, cultural shifts, proliferation of weapons, and the growth of madrassas. The Pakistani government’s past disregard for these consequences was driven by the pursuit of ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan, a notion now abandoned as impractical by Advisor to former PM Nawaz Sharif on Foreign Affairs, Sartaj Aziz.

However, the prolonged presence of legal and illegal Afghan refugees has posed an existential threat to Pakistan. Some have become agents of enemy intelligence agencies, harboring resentment towards Pakistan. The extensive interaction between Afghan refugees and anti-Pakistan elements within certain ethno-linguistic Pakistani groups has resulted in a significant threat to the country’s stability. This complex situation demands a comprehensive and well-defined approach to safeguard Pakistan’s security and stability.

Over the years, the author has observed that members of a purported Pakhtun party based in Quetta have facilitated Afghan refugees in obtaining Pakistani Computerized National Identity Cards (CNICs). This has allowed thousands of Afghans to enroll as voters, playing a significant role in electing members of this group to provincial and national assemblies. Despite pledging allegiance to Pakistan, these elected representatives have often prioritized the interests of Afghanistan over those of Pakistan.

Recent incidents, such as Afghans openly burning Pakistani flags in Kohat (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and Chaman (Balochistan), highlight the ingratitude of some Afghan refugees. While it’s common for many Afghan refugees to speak negatively about Pakistan, such actions underscore the challenges faced after decades of hosting over three million Afghan refugees. The situation prompts contemplation of potential behind-the-scenes conspiracies.

The current effort to repatriate Afghan refugees is critical for Islamabad, presenting a “now or never” scenario. Failure to send them back could force Pakistan to naturalize these refugees, transforming them into citizens and posing an irreversible security threat. Consequently, Pakistani decision-makers must approach the issue of repatriation of Afghan refugees with strategic foresight and sanity.

It is essential to recognize that Pakistani security forces, despite significant losses, have successfully established the state’s authority in the militant-terrorist-infested regions along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Many Pakistani and foreign-affiliated militant and terrorist groups have fled to Afghanistan, launching attacks within Pakistan in collaboration with anti-Pakistan Taliban authorities. The continuity of this policy under the Taliban is evident, as reflected in the more than 2,000 Pakistani lives lost in attacks by the Afghanistan-based and Taliban-backed Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) since the Taliban regained power in August 2021. The security implications demand a thoughtful and proactive approach to safeguard Pakistan’s interests in the region.