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Pakistan must not collectively punish Afghan refugees

On October 3, Pakistan’s interim government announced it was giving “illegal immigrants” 28 days to leave the country. Those who do not do so would be forcefully deported starting on November 1.

This unprecedented measure is directed specifically at the 1.73 million Afghans who have fled to Pakistan and who have not been able to attain formal refugee status.

The announcement was made after the Pakistani government alleged that 14 out of 24 suicide bombings this year had been carried out by individuals holding Afghan citizenship. It has not put forward any evidence to support this claim yet.

The threat of deportation has been condemned by multiple international organisations and governments.

I, and many other Afghans, would attest to the warm hospitality Pakistan has shown Afghan people through the years. Afghans have had significantly better opportunities to study, live and work in Pakistan compared with other countries in the region.

This long history of friendship should not be poisoned by short-sighted and reactionary decisions. The treatment of Afghan refugees has already deteriorated significantly in Pakistan in recent years as they have been persistently blamed for security failures within the country.

Over the past few years, the Tehreek-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan (TTP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban, has ramped up its attacks on security personnel and civilians. The Pakistani security apparatus and army have struggled to contain its terrorist activities, and government officials have repeatedly accused the Afghan Taliban of harbouring the group.

It is important to put these developments in context. Pakistan played a key role in creating and bringing to power the Afghan Taliban in the 1990s. During the 20-year US occupation of Afghanistan, the Pakistani establishment gave refuge to the group. The TTP is a byproduct of this relationship. The leaders of the TTP all trained and developed bonds with the leaders of the Taliban during their time in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

But the TTP was formed in Pakistan and has operated for most of its existence from within the country. Even if one were to accept the claim that today the Afghan Taliban allows the TTP’s leadership to operate from eastern Afghanistan, let us remember that the Afghan people did not choose the Taliban to rule them and they should not be punished for its decisions.

Let us also recall that the elected Pakistani government was among the first to congratulate the Taliban on taking over Kabul and then-Prime Minister Imran Khan even called it “breaking the chains of slavery”.

It is important to note that the Afghan Taliban has made concrete progress in fighting terrorist groups, which has been acknowledged by the United States, China, Russia and countries in Afghanistan’s immediate neighbourhood. It has systematically attacked cells of the Islamic State-Khorasan Province, which claimed a deadly suicide bombing in July in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

Its government in Kabul has also made an effort to address Pakistan’s security concerns regarding the TTP. In 2022, the Taliban hosted negotiations between Pakistan and the TTP that resulted in a ceasefire lasting five months. When the Pakistani military carried out air raids in April last year on Afghan territory, violating Afghanistan’s sovereignty and killing civilians, the Taliban government had a rather mellow reaction, issuing a statement condemning the attacks as “cruelty”, a response that was quite unpopular among Afghans.

Then in August, the Taliban’s supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, issued a decree forbidding cross-border attacks. In late September, Taliban government forces detained about 200 TTP fighters on Afghan territory.

Against the backdrop of all these events, it is unfortunate that the Pakistani government decided to ignore the potential for meaningful security cooperation and take a populist and inhumane decision to expel Afghans.

Pakistan is a nation born during the biggest migration of people in modern history. Its people know what seeking safe haven means. They also know the trauma of collective punishment.

Today as Pakistanis are standing up to denounce Israel’s collective punishment of Palestinians, they should not close their eyes and stay silent about the decision to expel an Afghan population almost as large as that of Gaza.

I call upon our friends in Pakistan to appeal to their government and demand that they respect the Afghan refugees’ basic rights to dignity and safety.

African American poet Maya Angelou once said: “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.” Pakistanis should not let those who need kindness the most become the victims of ill-conceived foreign policies. If carried out, this cruel act of deportation would negatively affect relations between both countries for years to come.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.


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