Pakistan: Stop the racist war on Afghan refugees!

15 November 2023

By Minerwa Tahir

On October 1, the Pakistani government gave an ultimatum to an estimated 1.7 million Afghan refugees, many of whom have fled persecution at the hands of Taliban, to leave its borders within a month. Those who would fail to do so were to face imprisonment and deportation. By the October 9, 1,700 Afghans “illegally residing” in Karachi had already been arrested by the Sindh provincial authorities. The decision was taken in an apex committee meeting headed by caretaker Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar and attended by Chief of Army Staff General Asim Munir, federal ministers and provincial chief ministers, among others.

The government decided that movement on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan would be subject to passports and visas, and the electronic Afghan identity cards, known as e-tazkiras, would not be acceptable beyond October 31. After this deadline, an operation would commence targeting illegal properties and businesses owned by immigrants or those being run in collaboration with Pakistan nationals. Evidently, the government did not wait for the deadline and has begun taking action against an already displaced people.

The situation in Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul following the withdrawal of US-led troops in August 2021 intensified the already severe instability and violence in the country. According to the UN Refugee Agency, at least 8.2 million Afghans have been displaced by conflict, violence and poverty and have sought refuge across 103 different countries. After Syrians and Ukrainians, Afghans constitute the third-largest displaced population in the world. Pakistan and Iran currently host the largest numbers of the displaced populations. Unlike their Ukrainian counterparts, Afghan refugees are not new to this style of living as their region has seen four decades of conflict and instability. Hunger, starvation and human rights violations are rampant. In 2023, 20 million Afghans face acute hunder, with 6 million people just one step away from famine. A record 28.3 million people are in need of humanitarian and protection assistance in 2023, which is a drastic increase from 24.4 million in 2022 and 18.4 in early 2021. Within Afghanistan, debts have increased, both in terms of the number of people taking on debt (82 per cent of all households) and the amount of debt (about 11 per cent higher than the previous year). Furthermore, the fundamentalist government has made sure than Afghanistan is no more home for anyone who wishes to give their daughters the same life as their sons. To make matters worse, natural calamities have committed their fair share of violence against the Afghans. In June 2022, at least 1000 people were killed and many more injured in the worst earthquake to have hit the country in the last 20 years. This year, over 2400 people have already died and many more are still dying as another major earthquake has hit western Afghanistan.

One would expect that the reports of the Afghans displaced once again in thousands would soften the stance of the Pakistani government, even if momentarily. But none of that happened. Despite the United Nations urging Islamabad to consider the risks of forcible repatriation of refugees to Afghanistan, the Pakistan government has upheld its decision. While the Pakistani motivations are reactionary in their own right, the imperialist states that dominate the UN have their own designs behind urging Pakistan to keep the Afghans. After all, none of the imperialist centres want to take in any Afghan refugees fleeing the aftermath of a decades-long war that these centres are directly responsible for.

Pakistan govt’s reasoning, Taliban response

Around 1.3 million Afghans are registered refugees in Pakistan and 880,000 more have legal status to remain, according to the latest United Nations figures. However, the government claims that a further 1.73 million Afghans are in Pakistan illegally. According to the caretaker government’s interior minister, Sarfraz Bugti, the number of Afghan refugees in Pakistan totals 4.4 million. He explained that the government took the decision to expel Afghan refugees in light of the rising attacks by Islamist militants.

The expulsions would take place in phases. “In the first phase, illegal residents, in the second phase, those with Afghan citizenship and in the third phase, those with proof of residence cards will be expelled,” it stated, adding that these foreigners “pose a serious threat to the security of Pakistan”.

Bugti, announced that “the welfare and security of a Pakistani are most important for us over any country or its policy. The first decision taken is about our illegal immigrants who are living in Pakistan through illegal means. We have given them a deadline of November 1 to willingly return to their countries and if they don’t, all law enforcement agencies of the state and provinces will deport them.” Bugti added that entry without passport or visa is not allowed in any other country of the world.

The government also said a universal helpline number and a web portal were also being launched for citizens to come forward as anonymous informants to give information about illegal ID cards, illegal immigrants and other illegal practices such as smuggling and hoarding. Rward money would be set as well under such a scheme. One can well anticipate what a racist disaster this would prove to be in a country where most are sleeping on hungry stomachs! It may well be used for settling personal scores.

Bugti claimed that 24 suicide attacks from January onwards have taken place, of which 14 bombings were carried out by Afghan nationals, including the recent attacks on a police station and its mosque in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s Hangu region in which five people were killed as well as the blast inside a mosque in Peshawar’s Police Lines area, in which 59 people were killed.

The next day, Afghan Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah wrote on X (formerly Twitter) that Pakistan’s behaviour “against Afghan refugees is unacceptable”. He added, “The Pakistani side should reconsider its plan. Afghan refugees are not involved in Pakistan’s security problems. As long as they leave Pakistan voluntarily, that country should tolerate them.”

The United Nations is not backing the Pakistan government either. It has offered to assist Pakistan in establishing a system for overseeing and recording individuals seeking international protection within its border and addressing “specific vulnerabilities”. Meanwhile, Afghans have reported that indiscriminate arrests are taking place against them.

Why now?

For years, Pakistan has favoured the Taliban as Pakistan’s best option as Afghanistan’s rulers but relations have frayed over the past couple of years. The key accusation from the Pakistani state is that the Islamists fighting the Pakistani state carry out their operations from Afghan soil, where their fighters are trained and attacks inside Pakistan are planned. The Taliban denies these accusations, claiming that Pakistan’s security problems are home-grown. Meanwhile, the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, a Sunni hardline militant group, has ended its ceasefire with the Pakistani government since November last year. Since then, violence has seen an unusual uptick in Pakistan. Fact is that all players in the region, be it the semi-colonies like Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and Iran or imperialist powers like the US, Russia and China, frequently provide patronage to one or the other Islamist or otherwise militant group across the region. It is an open secret as leaders of nearly all the countries at one point or another have admitted to doing so. The problem lies in a. painting an entire population of a nation with the same stroke, and b. the fact that these affiliations become a problem only at certain junctures, i.e. when they become an inconvenience.

Pakistan is currently administered by a caretaker setup that has been in place since August to oversee the upcoming elections. The military has been able to exert more influence than usual in the current setup due to the political and economic instability that reigns over Pakistan. The country has been witnessing a serious economic crisis with its economy on the brink of collapse. The COVID pandemic, the 2022 floods, a general indebtedness to imperialist gendarmes IMF and the World Bank and their neoliberal diktat, a devaluing currency, and an overall rise in inflation, unemployment and terror incidents, are all factors that have left the masses of the impoverished country in a state of severe suffering and turmoil. Even the middle classes are struggling to survive as food and basic amenties become unaffordable and inaccessible. In this situation, it serves the interests of the ruling classes to divert the masses from the class struggle that is at the heart of their suffering and embroil them in a xenophobic campaign against an easy target. Afghans have long had a presence in the Pakistani region. Historically speaking, the colonial period saw a lot of movement for search of labour. Thanks to imperialist war and the suffering it brought about, this movement increased manifold. Pakistan was a key player in the so-called war on terror, and also received massive funding from imperialist powers. The least it ought to then do was host the thousands fleeing the persecution and war. Post 9/11, Afghan refugees arrived en masse in Pakistan relying on their tribal kinship ties across the porous mountainous border. Today, they mostly exist either as small business owners – mainly running teashops and commanding bus transit routes besides other similar professions – or are homeless beggars. Now, a number of people from the intelligentsia have also sought refuge in Pakistan with the hope that imperialist powers like the UK and Germany would act on their promises to grant them visas on Pakistani soil. Given that Afghans did not historically constitute a part of big capital in Pakistan, it comes as no surprise that they are today the scapegoat for a ruling class that struggles to rule in the way it used to rule.

Another important factor behind Pakistani rage towards Afghanistan is the transit trade through Pakistan. According to Dawn, “the Afghan transit trade has always been misused by traders of the two countries for smuggling. Reports suggest that transit cargoes are often diverted from ports directly to Pakistani markets before crossing the border.” The editorial adds that the value of this Afghan transit trade has increased from four billion USD a year earlier to 6.7 billion dollars this year, and that of items smuggled under transit cargo has gone up by 63 per cent to 3.7 billion dollars. Clearly, with its own economy on the brink of collapse, Pakistan is not happy with the billions that Afghan trade has allegedly made.

Yet perhaps the most significant reason is that the Pakistani state had hoped to keep Afghanistan in its sphere of influence on the geopolitical plane, and is now using deportations of Afghan refugees as a punitive measure against its unruly neighbour that it fears has one foot in India’s boat. Afghanistan’s growing proximity to India has clearly left a sour taste in the mouth for Pakistan. Taliban-ruled Afghanistan has termed the Kashmir conflict a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan and maintained silence over the atrocities committed against the predominantly Muslim valley. Meanwhile, this year, India shipped through Iran’s Chabahar port 20,000 metric tons of wheat to the land-locked country grappling with an extreme food crisis, followed by 40,000 tons sent last year through Pakistan’s land routes. India sent medical supplies to Afghanistan, too. India has also sustained diplomatic engagement with the Taliban government, and reopened its embassy in Kabul. India has set aside 25 million dollars in development aid in its 2023-24 budget for Afghanistan, a move welcome by the Taliban.

Needless to say, the Islamophobic Hindutva government in Delhi is maintaining a balanced proximity with the Islamist fundamentalist one in Kabul primarily on the basis of regional interests. (This becomes all the more obvious when one looks at how India not only stopped issuing visas to Afghan students after the Taliban took over but also nullified the visas on August 25, 2021, of those who had been granted visas but were not present in India.) These interests revolve not just around canceling out Pakistan’s sphere of influence but more importantly that of its far stronger rival, China. China’s ambassador to Kabul, Zhao Sheng, received a very warm welcome by the Taliban last month, and the two countries have expressed a mutual desire for closer ties, especially commercial ones. This threatens India’s investments in Afghanistan that it had made during the rule of Ashraf Ghani’s puppet government, which is possibly why India had to posture setting aside the Islamophobia and talk business with Kabul.

Nevertheless, Islamabad is not thrilled. It is also aware that Afghanistan’s economy, with its government still not recognised internationally, all its assets frozen, the famine-like situation and high indebtedness, could not bear the burden of the return of a million refugees. The response from the Taliban spokesperson to the decision from Pakistan also shows that.

What it means for Afghan refugees

Harassment of Afghan refugees is nothing new in Pakistan, it simply has a legal cover now. On World Refugee Day on June 20, Amnesty International urged the Pakistani government to stop with practices of arbitrarily arresting and harassing Afghan refugees and asylem seekers. A large number of refugees fled to Pakistan after the Taliban takeover. According to Amnesty International, many of them arrived in Pakistan with regular visas, which have since expired (and to renew them, they must re-enter Afghanistan), and because of considerable delays in the registration process, most do not hold Proof of Registration cards, which is the identity document entitling Afghan refugees to remain regularly in Pakistan. Besides the posturing of friendly neighbourly relations to extend its sphere of influence, Pakistan probably also let in these refugees with the hope of receiving international aid.

Ever since their arrival en masse in August 2021, Afghans frequently faced not only harassment and arbitrary arrests but also extortion and unemployment. Without documents to prove their legal status, it is easier for authorities to extort money from them after or via threat of arbitrary detention. Similarly, the lack of documents leaves them in low-paid precarious occupations as formal employment is not an option. They can’t set up bank accounts or register their SIM cards without a proof of registration. Landlords and property agents also take advantage of their lack of proof of regular status.

Renewal of expired visas means that Afghans must re-enter Afghanistan to get the visa issued. For many, especially women and gender minorities, journalists, activists, Shias, musicians and progressive people, this is not an option. As a result, they chose to lay low and live a life of precarity in Pakistan. That option is not being taken away from them.

Since Pakistan has not adopted the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, which according to Karachi-based lawyer Moniza Kakar, “stops states from punishing people who enter a country illegally”, it is able to invoke the domestic Foreigners Act 1946 to use against Afghans residing in Pakistan illegally, to punish and deport them. Clearly, Pakistan is still stuck in the barbarism of colonial times!

A common sentiment about Afghans across Pakistan, but particularly in Sindh’s courts, is that these people are not worthy of humanitarian assistance because they are “criminals” involved in “terrorist activities”. This racial profiling is not reserved for Afghans alone – their Pashtun cousins are not spared either. The motivations behind the killing of Naqibullah Mehsud, that spurred the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, were exactly the same. This racial discrimination and hostility is rampant across Pakistani institutions – at hospitals, schools, colleges and universities, workplaces, local neighbourhoods, courts and police stations.

Therefore, we must fight against all such sentiments. Afghans seeking asylum from the reactionary Taliban government have no business blowing themselves up in suicide vests. They are victims of persecution, fleeing their homeland to find refuge and shelter. The idea that they have left their homes just to be able to bomb Pakistan is bizarre. The suffering of the vast majority of the displaced Afghan people, who were first punished by imperialist war on their land, then the Taliban, and now by Pakistan and other host countries, must come to an end now. Countries like Germany have not played a very different role either. Clearly, the urgency displayed to host Ukrainian refugees was absent in the case of the Afghans. The process to bring Afghans to Germany through Pakistan was by design as arduous and complicated as nearly everything is for Muslim-background migrants when it comes to immigration bureaucracy. The case is not particularly different for other imperialist countries.

Tasks and demands

The Pakistani state imagines itself as the torchbearer of Islamic principles and is aggrieved when Muslims are faced with suffering, be it in Palestine or India. It is interesting to note though that the same lens is not applied to the vast majority of Muslims suffering in Afghanistan.

In short, Afghan refugees face a similar dilemma as the Gazans today. They have nowhere to go. Moreover, no country wants to take them, and most of them simply cannot return to their homeland as long as the Taliban stay in power. Therefore, the tasks that emerge from the given situation for socialists are two-fold. Not only do we have the duty to defend the right of poor Afghan refugee families to stay in neighbouring lands, i.e. Pakistan, China, India, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan as well as in Europe, North America and Australia. We are equally confronted with the task to offer international solidarity and practical support to our progressive brethren, particularly the brave women, in Afghanistan so that they may be able to overthrow the reactionary regime of the Taliban. For such a support to materialise, borders need not be hardened but rather abolished. And this is also in the interests of the working masses of all the lands that neighbour Afghanistan. The rallying cry for the realisation of this Permanent Revolution will be “Say it loud, say it clear, Afghans are all welcome here”. The following demands can be a starting point for an action programme for overcoming the current situation.

Tags:  •   • 

Class struggle bulletin

Stay up to date with our weekly newsletter