Pakistan’s government has announced a major crackdown on migrants in the country illegally, saying it would expel them starting next month and raising alarm among foreigners without documentation who include an estimated 1.7 million Afghans.
The country’s caretaker Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti said the crackdown was not aimed at Afghans and would apply to all nationalities, though the vast majority of migrants in the country are Afghans. The campaign comes amid strained relations between Pakistan and neighboring, Taliban-led Afghanistan over what the Pakistani government says are attacks in Pakistan by Taliban-allied militants who go back and forth across the countries’ shared 2,611-kilometer (1,622-mile) border and who find shelter in Afghanistan.
Bugti said that any migrants in Pakistan illegally should go back to their countries voluntarily before the end of October to avoid mass arrest and forced deportation. He said the government planned to confiscate the property and assets of illegal migrants, and would set up a special phone line to offer rewards to members of the public who tip off authorities about such migrants.
“Anyone living in the country illegally must go back,” he said.
Although Pakistani police have routinely been arresting and deporting Afghans who have sneaked into the country without valid documents in recent years, this is the first time that the government has announced such a major crackdown on illegal immigration. It was unusual for such a major shift in immigration policy to come during a caretaker government, which is intended to tide the country over during interim periods between the end of a five-year National Assembly and elections.
Caretaker Prime Minister Anwaarul-Haq-Kakar took power in August and is supposed to rule until elections planned for the end of January. A government statement said the new migration policy was endorsed during a high-level meeting Tuesday among Pakistan’s political leadership and the country’s powerful military.
The decision has sparked mixed reactions among local Pakistanis and Afghan refugees. Some Pakistanis have applauded the move, saying it would reduce the burden on the economy and curb inflation. They also blamed the influx of Afghan migrants for the rise of heinous crimes in Pakistan.
“We welcome this decision by the government. These Afghans have been living here for decades without contributing anything to our society. They are involved in many criminal activities such as drug trafficking, kidnapping, robbery and terrorism. They are also taking away our jobs and resources. They should go back to their own country and leave us alone,” said Mohammad Aamir, a shopkeeper in Islamabad.
However, some Pakistanis have expressed sympathy for the plight of the Afghan refugees, who have fled decades of war and instability in their homeland. They said that Pakistan should not abandon its Muslim brothers and sisters in need, and that deporting them would create more humanitarian problems.
“These Afghans are our guests and our brothers in faith. They have suffered a lot in their country because of foreign intervention and civil war. They have nowhere else to go. We should not treat them like criminals and throw them out of our country. We should help them as much as we can, as Islam teaches us to be kind and generous to our neighbors,” said Fatima Shah, a teacher in Karachi.
The Afghan refugees themselves have expressed fear and uncertainty about their future. Many of them have been living in Pakistan for decades, and have no ties or prospects in Afghanistan. They said they had never felt the need to register with Pakistani authorities and now fear it is too late to do so. They also worried about their safety and security in Afghanistan, where violence and instability continue under the Taliban regime.
“We request the Pakistan government not to expel us in such a hasty way and allow us either to live here peacefully, or we should be given at least six months to one year time to go back,” said Fazal Sattar, a 57-year-old Afghan fruit seller in Peshawar. “We have no home or family in Afghanistan. We have built our lives here in Pakistan. Our children were born here and go to school here. How can we leave everything behind and start from scratch in a war-torn country?” he added.