Why Pakistan Is Deporting Afghan Migrants

Some analysts say Pakistan hopes to pressure the Taliban government to take terrorism more seriously. Others point to a desire to reduce the population of ethnic Pashtuns, a sizable minority to which many Afghan migrants belong, and whom Pakistan’s influential military sees as a separatist threat.

This is not the first time Pakistan has cited security concerns in a migration crackdown: in 2016, it deported some six hundred thousand Afghan migrants. Human Rights Watch called the exodus “the world’s largest unlawful mass forced return of refugees in recent times.” Soon thereafter, Pakistan began building a fence along the Durand Line.

How Could Pakistan’s Upcoming Election Impact the Debate?

The deportations coincide with a tumultuous political and economic outlook ahead of national elections scheduled for February 2024. 

Pakistan has faced intense polarization since its last elected prime minister, Imran Khan, was ousted from power in 2022 after falling out with the county’s military. His removal spurred mass protests, particularly after he was arrested on charges of fraud a year later. Despite his current incarceration, Khan aims to run again, and could face another ousted prime minister: Nawaz Sharif, who fled to London in 2019 after being charged with corruption and returned in October 2023. However, experts say that the military continues to call the shots behind the scenes. “The military, which exerts heavy influence over the caretaker regime, is likely driving the [deportation] policy,” the Wilson Center’s Michael Kugelman writes.  

Consequently, neither candidate would likely have much room to maneuver on migration, as public opinion remains firmly anti-migrant. Khan, a Pashtun, has reportedly criticized the deportation policy, but as prime minister he was forced to abandon plans for a pathway to citizenship for Afghans following criticism from opposition parties. Sharif, meanwhile, oversaw the 2016 mass expulsion.  

Some analysts say Pakistan’s deepening economic crisis, one of the country’s worst since its independence in 1947, has contributed to anti-immigrant political sentiment. Food and fuel prices have soared, the Pakistani rupee has rapidly depreciated, and the central bank’s supply of foreign exchange reserves has dwindled. Nationwide power outages due to chronic underinvestment in the country’s infrastructure have further shaken the economy; Islamabad has been forced to turn to the International Monetary Fund for $3 billion in loans. The budget crunch has reportedly led the government to charge undocumented migrants an exit fee of $830, more than half the average annual income in Pakistan. 

What Have the International Reactions Been?
The issue has sparked criticism from the United Nations, the United States, and human rights organizations who have called on Islamabad to halt deportations and fulfill international obligations of proper treatment of refugees. Pakistan has never ratified the 1951 Geneva Convention and thus lacks domestic protections for refugees. Nonetheless, legal analysts say the deportations still violate international human rights norms against returning asylum seekers to a dangerous or oppressive situation. 

Rights advocates say Afghanistan certainly meets that criteria as well, and the humanitarian situation has deteriorated further since the Taliban’s 2021 takeover, heightening the threat for refugees in Pakistan facing deportation back to Afghanistan. U.S. officials say they are pursuing U.S. visas for at least twenty-five thousand Afghans at particular risk, including wartime allies, journalists, and women’s rights activists.

The deportations could also further worsen Pakistan’s relations with Afghanistan, which has condemned the policy. The financial strain of hundreds of thousands of returnees could complicate aid efforts, given the ongoing Western sanctions on the Taliban. Afghanistan has called for more international assistance, alleging a similar push by Iran to expel its Afghan population, but many donors remain hesitant. Meanwhile, some analysts say that Islamabad’s plan to reduce terrorist attacks by deporting migrants could backfire by fueling grievances and decreasing Kabul’s willingness to cooperate.

Megan Fahrney is an editorial intern at CFRThis article is published courtesy of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).