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‘Everyone is anxious’: Pakistan’s mass arrests of Afghan refugees fuel fear of new crackdown

Afghan refugees (EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid/Flickr)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

A video shows a group of Afghan men and boys, all tied together with rope, being led away by police officers.

The 30-second video, widely shared on social media this month, purportedly shows a group of Afghan refugees who were arrested in Pakistan’s southern province of Sindh.

They are believed to be among the around 1,500 Afghan refugees, including women and children, who have been arrested in Sindh in recent weeks.

The authorities have said the Afghan nationals were charged with violating the Foreigners Act, a Pakistani law amended in 2016 that empowers authorities to deport foreigners lacking proper documentation. Courts can also fine or imprison foreigners for violating the law.

Those representing the Afghan citizens, however, complain that hundreds have been unlawfully arrested.

The mass arrests have fueled fears that Pakistan is waging a new crackdown against the millions of Afghan refugees and migrants residing in the South Asian nation. The authorities have warned foreigners that they will be deported or imprisoned for up to three years if they fail to renew their visas by December 31.

Tens of thousands of Afghans have fled to Pakistan since the Taliban seized power last year, joining the several million Afghan refugees and migrants already residing in the country for decades.

Many of the new arrivals have remained in Pakistan because of delays in getting visas to Western nations. Most have said they cannot afford the hundreds of dollars needed to renew their Pakistani visas.

‘Horrible Conditions’

Abdul Wakil, an Afghan national, said his son was among the hundreds of Afghans recently arrested in Sindh. He said some of those arrested, including his son, had valid visas or refugee status.

“Those in prison are living in horrible conditions,” Wakil, who requested that his real name not be used, told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi. “Someone needs to pay attention to our plight.”

Muniza Kakar, a lawyer who is voluntarily representing Afghan refugees arrested in Pakistan, has helped free hundreds of people in recent days.

“I’ve met up to 400 imprisoned Afghans who had [valid] visas, but police confiscated their passports,” she told Radio Azadi.

Kakar said that when she pressed the police to return the documents, they refused and claimed no one was carrying any papers.

“Such treatment is aimed at tormenting Afghans who have been arrested,” she said.

Sohail Faiz, a senior police official in Karachi, the provincial capital of Sindh, said the arrests were part of a “combing operation against illegal immigrants” and would continue.

Senior leaders in Sindh’s provincial government have said Afghans are a “key source of violence and crime.” They have urged Islamabad for years to return Afghans to their homeland or resettle them in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, located along the Afghan border.

The United Nations refugee agency has criticized Pakistan’s mass arrests of Afghan refugees in recent weeks.

“Refugees should not be punished or criminalized for exercising their fundamental human right to seek asylum,” said Qaiser Khan Afridi, a spokesman for the UNHCR in Pakistan.

He said the UNHCR has called on Pakistan to suspend the forced return of Afghans regardless of their status, including asylum seekers who have had their claims rejected.

“We continue to urge neighboring countries, including Pakistan, to protect those seeking safety, as they have done for many years,” he said.

Mohsin Dawar, a lawmaker from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, told parliament that the Pakistani government is “responsible for formulating a law that must address” the problems of Afghan refugees.

“No one leaves their homeland unless they are forced to,” he said on November 14.

Islamabad has said some 250,000 Afghans have entered Pakistan since January 2021, most of them arriving after the Taliban takeover in August 2021. Most of them are educated professionals looking to resettle in another country.

Former government workers, rights campaigners, and journalists have expressed fears of Taliban persecution. Others have said they wish to escape the Taliban’s hard-line rule. The economic freefall has shuttered businesses and left scant options for alternative livelihoods. And the dire health-care situation has forced many Afghans to look abroad to Pakistan for medical treatment.

Before their arrival, Islamabad was already hosting an estimated 1.4 million documented refugees. Several hundred thousand more Afghans live in the country undocumented. So far this year, the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) has recorded the return of more than 65,000 Afghan refugees from Pakistan to Afghanistan.

Islamabad is not a signatory to international conventions on the rights of refugees. Pakistan has faced widespread accusations by Afghan refugees of harassment, ill-treatment, arbitrary detentions, and forced returns to Afghanistan.

Akbar, an Afghan national who has been living in hiding in Pakistan since his visa expired and who requested his real name not be used, said many Afghans fear a new clampdown by Pakistani authorities.

“Everyone is anxious about what will happen to them,” he told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi.