Pakistan has started rounding up and deporting undocumented foreigners — including 1.7 million Afghan nationals — following a one-month deadline for voluntary departure that expired Wednesday.
Authorities have reported that nearly 250,000 Afghans have returned to their home country voluntarily in the run-up to the November 1 deadline to avoid being arrested and forcibly expelled.
The United Nations and Pakistani officials say those facing deportation include more than 600,000 people who fled Afghanistan after the Islamist Taliban returned to power in August 2021, when the United States and NATO withdrew their troops from the country.
U.S. officials say they are working closely with Pakistani counterparts to ensure the protection of at least 25,000 Afghans who could be eligible for relocation to the United States under a special immigration program for their services during the two-decade-long presence of American forces in Afghanistan.
But a senior Pakistani official said Wednesday that Islamabad had rejected the list because of significant discrepancies.
“The list of 25,000 Afghans was shared with Pakistan just days before the deportation deadline was to expire. We examined it thoroughly but found it flawed and incomplete,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity for not being authorized to discuss the subject publicly.
The official added that the U.S. side eventually withdrew the list in response to Pakistan’s objections and promised to resubmit it after removing the flaws. Washington did not comment immediately on Pakistani assertions.
On Tuesday, a U.S. official said that facilitating “the safe and efficient” resettlement of Pakistan-based eligible Afghan refugees and asylum seekers is a priority for the U.S. administration.
“To help protect vulnerable individuals, we have shared a list with the government of Pakistan of more than 25,000 Afghan individuals in the U.S. resettlement and relocation pipelines,” said the U.S. official, who spoke anonymously to discuss the policy. “We are in the process of sending letters to those individuals that they can share with local authorities to help identify them as individuals in the U.S. pipeline.”
Dozens of Afghan nationals jailed for “minor crimes” also were released from a prison near the capital of Islamabad and were transported along with others to the border for repatriation Wednesday.
“This action is a testament to Pakistan’s determination to repatriate any individuals residing in the country without proper documentation,” Pakistani Interior Minister Sarfaraz Bugti said on social media platform X.
The Taliban have repeatedly called on Pakistan and other neighboring countries hosting Afghan refugees to halt their deportation. The U.N. and human rights groups have warned the Pakistani plan could expose many individuals to retribution and abuses by de facto Afghan authorities.
“We call on them not to deport Afghans forcefully without preparation; rather give them enough time, and countries should use tolerance,” a Taliban statement said Wednesday. “Those Afghans who have left the country due to political concerns, we assure them to return and live peacefully in their country.”
The Taliban have set up temporary camps on the Afghan side for returning families to provide them with immediate shelter, health care, food and other services.
Pakistan has been praised globally for hosting millions of Afghan refugees who fled the decadelong Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and ensuing factional fighting in the 1990s. Currently, more than 4 million Afghans reside in the country, including 1.4 million legally registered refugees and hundreds of thousands of documented economic migrants.
Pakistani authorities have stated that Afghans living legally in the country are not subject to the crackdown.
Islamabad defends its policy regarding foreigners without legal status, saying Afghan nationals have carried out several suicide bombings in Pakistan amid a recent spike in deadly attacks in the country being orchestrated by Taliban-allied militants from Afghan soil.
The violence has led to anti-Afghan sentiment and calls for forcing the refugee community out of the country. It comes as Pakistan struggles to address a protracted economic crisis, which has led to historic levels of inflation and energy prices.
VOA Pakistan Bureau Chief Sarah Zaman contributed to this report.