The deportation of several hundred thousand Afghan refugees from Pakistan at a very short notice in harsh winter conditions has been condemned internationally by several leading humanitarian and human rights organizations. The United Nations has expressed serious regret at this. Despite this and despite many early signs of a big, entirely avoidable humanitarian crisis building up, the Pakistan authorities have still not reconsidered or postponed their deportation plans.
At the time of writing this towards the end of November 2023, the latest situation is that close to about 400,000 Afghan refugees have already left or been deported in roughly the first month after the expiry of the notice period of November 1. However according to Pakistani government estimates, the orders for leaving Pakistan cover about 1.7 million foreigners without documents recognized by the Pakistani government, most of whom are Afghans. Hence over a million are still left. Pakistani government officials have been quoted as saying that the work of evicting and deporting will continue relentlessly during December and January so that about one million more Afghan refugees can be deported.
In other words, almost three times more will be evicted in December in January despite the fact that the harsh winter conditions are steadily worsening. This is perhaps the worst time for sending back the Afghan refugees, keeping in view the harsh weather and the fact that many of them have no home to go to and will have to remain in tents or other inadequate accommodation for several weeks at least. They do not even have adequate warm clothing. Homes of several of them were demolished to make them go away, others had to leave behind belongings and uncollected pending wages or other dues. There have even been cases of confiscation of cash by Pakistani police or other forces. Hence the people who are being expelled have very few resources to fall back on in case of any illness or injury, or just to meet food and other basic needs for the next few days or weeks.
What is no less disturbing is that in the case of Afghan refugees headed for other countries (mainly western countries), the Pakistani government has imposed an entirely arbitrary fee or fine of $ 830 on those who came without visa and varying amounts on those who stayed beyond visa limit, depending on the extent of overstay. This too has been widely condemned internationally. Considering that this is a humanitarian issue involving a large number of people escaping from various serious threats, how can fines based on individual lapses be imposed in this context? On the one hand the Pakistani government wants the refugees to go elsewhere as soon as possible, on the other hand it is collecting such big money from them as a pre-condition that will make it difficult for many of them to go, even if they have been lucky even to get the clearance from one of the countries.
There should be a sustained, strong campaign to prevent arbitrary deportation actions of the Pakistani government, or to at least postpone this till summer months, and to take back the fines or fees imposed recently.
There should also be efforts by the international community to increase the flow of dedicated funds for helping the Afghan refugees. The opportunistic actions of Pakistani government and several developed, rich countries led by the USA also contributed to creating several waves of refugees, and they all have responsibility towards them. The USA government has about 7 billion dollars of reserve funds of Afghanistan still pending. Both by pressurizing the Pakistani government to stop or postpone its arbitrary deportation and fine imposition policies, as well as by contributing more to helping Afghan refugees, the international community can still contribute to at least significantly reducing, if not altogether preventing, a new humanitarian crisis which was actually entirely avoidable in the first place.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Protecting Earth for Children and A Day in 2071.