More than 165,000 Afghans have fled Pakistan in the month since Islamabad issued an ultimatum to 1.7 million people to leave or face arrest and deportation, officials said Thursday.
The majority rushed to the border in the past several days as the November 1 deadline approached and police began to open up dozens of holding centres to detain arrested Afghans.
Officials at the country’s busiest border point at Torkham in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province worked into the early hours of Thursday morning to clear a queue of 28,000 people that stretched for seven kilometres.
The border traffic has since eased, with officials encouraging undocumented Afghans to continue leaving voluntarily as police launched search operations.
“Illegal Afghans arrived at Torkham in heavy numbers because of the deadline… People can still return voluntarily but today only 1,000 are present at the border,” Abdul Nasir Khan, deputy commissioner of the border district, told AFP.
Just over 129,000 have fled from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the provincial home department said, while a total of 38,100 have crossed through Chaman in Balochistan, border officials there told AFP.
Authorities on the Afghan side of the border have been overwhelmed by the scale of the exodus as they attempt to process those returning — some of whom are setting foot in Afghanistan for the first time in their lives.
– Campaign continues –
Millions of Afghans have poured into Pakistan in recent decades, fleeing a series of violent conflicts, including an estimated 600,000 since the Taliban government seized power in August 2021 and imposed its harsh interpretation of Islamic law.
Pakistan has said the deportations are to protect its “welfare and security” after a sharp rise in attacks, which the government blames on militants operating from Afghanistan.
Analysts say its likely a pressure tactic to force the Taliban government to cooperate on security issues.
The Afghan embassy in Islamabad has said the move will further damage relations between the two neighbours.
On Thursday, more than 100 people were detained in one police operation in the mega city of Karachi on Thursday, while police rounded up 425 Afghans in Quetta, the city closest to the Chaman border crossing.
“The campaign against illegal immigrants will continue,” Saad Bin Asad, the deputy commissioner of the city, told AFP.
Lawyers and rights groups have accused the Pakistani government of using threats, abuse, and detention to coerce Afghan asylum seekers to leave while Afghans have reported weeks of arbitrary arrests and extortion.
“The constitution of Pakistan gives every person who is present on this soil right to a fair trial, but these refugees have been denied that right,” said Moniza Kakar, a Karachi-based human rights lawyer.
The expulsion of undocumented Afghans, however, has widespread support from Pakistanis, analysts say, with a protracted refugee presence putting a heavy burden on the country’s infrastructure.