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Pakistan extends deadline for Uyghurs refugees facing deportation

Omer Khan is second from left (Omer Uyghur Trust/Facebook)
November 16, 2023

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Pakistani authorities have temporarily extended the period of stay for Uyghurs living in the city of Rawalpindi who were at risk for deportation under a government order to expel all illegal migrants by the start of November, a Uyghur involved in the situation said.

Nearly 20 Uyghur families — or about 100 individuals — who live in Pakistan’s fourth-biggest city but do not possess Afghan, Chinese passports or Pakistani residence permits have feared deportation to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan or China. 

Most of the affected Uyghurs are descendants of individuals who migrated decades ago from Xinjiang to Afghanistan and later to Pakistan. 

Pakistani authorities have not specified the duration of the extension, though they said the matter would be discussed in Pakistan’s parliament, and a decision would soon be made, according to Omer Khan, founder of the Pakistan-based Omer Uyghur Trust, who has been assisting the families.

“The Pakistani government has temporarily extended our stay, but we don’t know if it’s for three months or six months,” he told Radio Free Asia.

In early October, Pakistan declared that all foreigners without legal documents had to leave by Nov. 1 or face arrest and deportation. The decision was made in response to the killing of dozens of people in two suicide bombings at mosques in late September.  

Since most of the attacks had been carried out by Afghan nationals, officials decided to expel foreigners without a valid residence permit – including 1.73 million Afghan refugees – if they didn’t leave on their own.

But on Nov. 10, authorities announced that they had extended the legal residence status of over 1 million Afghan refugees until the end of the year, though Islamabad again rejected calls to stop deporting undocumented Afghans and other foreign nationals, Voice of America reported.

The Uyghurs have been living in a state of uncertainty for the past month and have been subjected to sudden house raids, searches and questioning by police, and threats of eviction by landlords.

The U.N. refugee agency’s office in Pakistan has given the Uyghurs a 24-hour emergency response phone number to call if they continued to face police harassment, Khan said, adding that the office told them that Pakistan could not deport them because they are Uyghurs, not Afghans.

“They conveyed to us that they have informed the Geneva [headquarters] about our situation,” Khan said. “Because we are Uyghurs, not Afghans, they will engage with the Pakistani government and have advised us to await positive news.”

Khan also said he spoke with the Pakistani landlords who rent homes to the Uyghurs, and they agreed not to evict them.