Pakistan suspends deportations of Afghans on ‘humanitarian grounds’

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan has halted the expulsion of undocumented migrants from Afghanistan after discussions with the chief of the United Nations refugee agency. 

Filippo Grandi, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, wrapped up his three-day visit Tuesday and called for “a bolstering of efforts towards longer-term solutions” for Afghans in Pakistan.  

A post-visit UNHCR statement said, “Grandi expressed appreciation that the ‘Illegal Foreigners Repatriation Plan’ had been suspended and sought assurances that it would remain on hold.” 

A senior Pakistani official who was knowledgeable about Grandi’s meetings with leaders in Islamabad confirmed to VOA that Pakistan had halted deportation of Afghans. However, the official did not specify the duration of the suspension. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly to the media.  

“Our message to Grandi was that the international community should fulfill its responsibility for the upkeep and repatriation of Afghan refugees. It’s a shared responsibility and shouldn’t be left to Pakistan to lift the entire burden,” the official said. 

The decision to suspend the evictions of Afghans was taken on “humanitarian grounds” because of deteriorating economic and humanitarian conditions facing impoverished, war-ravaged Afghanistan, said Pakistani and U.N. officials.  

During his visit, Grandi met with Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and other senior Pakistani officials, and his talks mainly focused on the fate of about 3 million Afghans.  

According to Pakistani and U.N. officials, of those, about 1.3 million are officially declared refugees, nearly 900,000 hold Afghan citizenship cards, and the remainder are without documents, or their visas have expired while waiting to seek asylum in third countries after fleeing the August 2021 Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. 

Repatriation action 

Pakistan unleashed a crackdown last November on all foreigners illegally staying in the country, citing a dramatic rise in militant attacks and attributing them to people residing among the refugee populations. The move has largely targeted more than 1 million Afghan migrants and asylum-seekers who lack legal documents or valid visas.  

Pakistani and Afghan officials say close to 600,000 Afghans have been repatriated to their homeland since the deportation campaign started.  

During his stay in Pakistan, Grandi also traveled to Afghan refugee localities in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, including its capital of Peshawar, and met with their representatives. 

“In the meantime, as Pakistan continues to host some 3 million Afghans, all solutions need to be explored in addition to voluntary repatriation, including third-country resettlement and longer-term solutions within Pakistan,” concluded the UNHCR statement. 

Islamabad maintains that anti-Pakistan militant groups entrenched in sanctuaries in Afghanistan have stepped up attacks against Pakistani security forces and civilians since the Taliban returned to power in the neighboring country three years ago.  

Taliban authorities have criticized the expulsion of Afghans from Pakistan and dismissed allegations they are allowing militants to use Afghan soil to threaten neighboring countries and beyond.

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