UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is raising concerns over Pakistan’s announcement for undocumented foreigners to leave, as the orders have adversely affected Afghan nationals including registered refugees and others with valid documents.

“Since Pakistan’s announcement of the plan on October 3, 2023, an estimated 374,000 people have returned to Afghanistan – mostly in fear and haste.  We are witnessing an exponential increase in arrests, detentions and deportations of Afghans in Pakistan,” Ms. Philippa Candler, UNHCR Representative in Pakistan said at a press briefing at the Palais des Nations in Geneva on November 21.

According to her, mass arrivals back to Afghanistan are adding to the ongoing humanitarian crisis as winter temperatures start to dip – in some locations the minimum already reaching -4°C.  Many Afghan returnees are vulnerable, including women and children who could lose their lives in a harsh winter if left without adequate shelter.

UNHCR has visited different locations in Pakistan in the past two weeks, meeting Afghans on the move and local authorities.  Afghans interviewed in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province – known as KP – in the northwest, and Balochistan province in the southwest of the country, including registered refugees, said they were leaving in a rush, fearing arrest and detention.  All registered Afghan refugees are reportedly exempt from the Government’s orders, but the announcement and follow-up actions, including reports of intimidation by local authorities and evictions by landlords, have created a sense of panic.  

UNHCR Representative in Pakistan notes that the ongoing pressure to return has caused severe distress within the communities despite the assurances received from the Government of Pakistan.

“We have been reiterating our call that any return to Afghanistan should be voluntary, safe and dignified, irrespective of legal status in Pakistan.  We have urged the Government of Pakistan to put in place a screening mechanism to identify individuals in need of international protection. UNHCR is offering support to Pakistan to put in place a system that addresses the legitimate concerns of the Government of Pakistan as well as Afghans seeking safety on its territory,” Ms. Candler said.

“UNHCR welcomes statements from Pakistani authorities at different levels to initiate legal actions against those who have been involved in extortion and mistreatment of Afghans who are on the move as a result of the Government’s order,” said she.  “Those arriving now at border points inside Afghanistan are exhausted and in need of emergency assistance. Many have complained of harassment, extortion and mistreatment.  Desperate women and children are among those who were not given a choice but to pack and leave.”