Dispatch

Afghan Refugees Get Cold Welcome in Pakistan

The Taliban takeover has pushed many Afghans over the border and into another kind of limbo.

Men walk near the Torkham border crossing.
Men walk near the Torkham border crossing in Pakistan on Sept. 28. Betsy Joles for Foreign Policy

Leaving Afghanistan

TORKHAM, Pakistan—After the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August, Abdul Qader knew he needed to get to Pakistan.

Qader, 43, worked for a government-affiliated news channel in Nangarhar province, and two of his nephews served in the Afghan National Army, which he feared would make his family potential Taliban targets. To make matters worse, Qader and other relatives faced pressure from his cousins to join the group. “Nobody from our side agreed,” he said in late September. “We said we cannot trust them.”

Under normal circumstances, the trip to Peshawar, Pakistan, is a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Qader’s house in Khogyani District, Afghanistan. Qader left home with his wife, their five kids, and his brother’s family, traveling toward the Torkham border crossing. Along the way, he learned the Taliban were stopping vehicles on the road. So he rerouted, cutting down to Kandahar and over to Spin Boldak, where they crossed into Pakistan. Days after their journey began, Qader and his family finally reached Peshawar.

TORKHAM, Pakistan—After the Taliban took over Afghanistan in August, Abdul Qader knew he needed to get to Pakistan.

Qader, 43, worked for a government-affiliated news channel in Nangarhar province, and two of his nephews served in the Afghan National Army, which he feared would make his family potential Taliban targets. To make matters worse, Qader and other relatives faced pressure from his cousins to join the group. “Nobody from our side agreed,” he said in late September. “We said we cannot trust them.”

Under normal circumstances, the trip to Peshawar, Pakistan, is a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Qader’s house in Khogyani District, Afghanistan. Qader left home with his wife, their five kids, and his brother’s family, traveling toward the Torkham border crossing. Along the way, he learned the Taliban were stopping vehicles on the road. So he rerouted, cutting down to Kandahar and over to Spin Boldak, where they crossed into Pakistan. Days after their journey began, Qader and his family finally reached Peshawar.

For decades, Pakistan has received displaced Afghans, creating one of the most protracted refugee crises in the world; it hosts 1.4 million officially registered refugees and as many as 3.5 million displaced Afghans in total, according to government estimates. But since the Taliban takeover, Pakistan has pushed back against new arrivals from Afghanistan, tightening its border restrictions and deporting some people who have crossed over without visas. Many Afghans are being turned back from borders they previously crossed with ease.

This attitude toward recent Afghan arrivals reflects the fears of a state burdened by the cost of hosting refugees and paranoid about its national security. Rights groups said Afghans are often scapegoated by the government and sections of the public in Pakistan’s fight against economic uncertainty and extremism. As the humanitarian situation across the border spirals, options for Afghans attempting to seek refuge in Pakistan are limited. Those who have made it, like Qader, are now sitting precariously inside a system that doesn’t officially acknowledge them.


Mansoor, 20, a former soldier in the Afghan army, stands near the house where he and his family have been staying since coming from Afghanistan in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Sept. 28.

Mansoor, 20, a former soldier in the Afghan National Army, stands near the house where he and his family have been staying since coming from Afghanistan in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Sept. 28. Betsy Joles for Foreign Policy

Around 28,000 people have arrived in Pakistan from Afghanistan since the beginning of the year, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The majority of them likely came after the Taliban takeover, though official numbers of arrivals from the last three months are unavailable. Pakistan has facilitated passage for some Afghan arrivals by issuing short-term transit visas, but it has resisted addressing the humanitarian situation for those who entered the country by other means.

In September, Pakistani Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad denied there was an influx of refugees from across the border and said Pakistan would not set up refugee camps. Since then, the government has issued few official statements about what will happen to the Afghans who arrived amid the crisis. “Nobody knows what the policy is,” said Afrasiab Khattak, a veteran Pakistani politician and former senator. “Afghans are being thrown to the wolves.”

Official movement between Afghanistan and Pakistan’s 1,640-mile border goes through two crossings: Torkham in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and Chaman in Pakistan’s Balochistan province. The Torkham border only allows passage for Afghans with valid visas and for those seeking medical care, although doctors said this has become more difficult. Chaman, which usually allows visa-free transit for Afghans from certain border areas, has been intermittently closed for months.

People stand on the Pakistan side of the Torkham border crossing on Sept. 28.

People stand on the Pakistan side of the Torkham border crossing on Sept. 28. Betsy Joles for Foreign Policy

Most of Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan is fenced and manned by the army and other paramilitary forces. Still, Afghans are finding their way into Pakistan at the risk of being sent back. Qader’s family paid for identity cards that said they were from Afghanistan’s Kandahar district, which allowed them to pass through at Chaman according to border conventions there.

Abdul Wahid, 22, who like many Afghans goes by a single name, said he entered Pakistan through an informal border crossing in Zabul province with a group of his neighbors after the Taliban attacked his village just before the fall of Kabul. He decided it was time to leave Afghanistan when Taliban fighters began seeking shelter in nearby homes. Previously, Abdul Wahid crossed the Chaman border without a visa; he used to bring family members to Pakistan once a year for medical care.

This time, he and his neighbors paid smugglers to help them enter Pakistan, walking through the mountains to arrive in Kuchlak, a town near Quetta, Pakistan, where he is staying with relatives. Out of the 55 households that crossed with them from his village, Abdul Wahid estimated 50 of them were deported once they reached Pakistan. “Some are in Afghanistan. Some are in Pakistan. I don’t know where they are right now,” he said.


Men sit in a truck in a parking lot near the Torkham border crossing on Sept. 28.

Men sit in a truck in a parking lot near the Torkham border crossing on Sept. 28. Betsy Joles for Foreign Policy

Refugee rights advocates said Pakistan’s lack of policy on new arrivals has made it difficult for aid groups to support them. “This time, the situation is a bit different, and there is chaos for humanitarian organizations,” said Rukhshanda Naz, a board member of the Women’s Regional Network, a civil society group. As a result, Afghans in Pakistan are having to rely on informal networks in the communities they settle in to meet their basic needs.

In a settlement near Board Bazar, an area in Peshawar with a substantial Afghan population, dozens of new arrivals said they are staying under the radar—afraid they will be stopped by authorities if they venture too far from the neighborhood. Under a makeshift shelter, some people shared documents with the names of international organizations in Afghanistan where they once worked.

Zuleikha, 20, who also goes by a single name, said she was offered an opportunity for resettlement through the Norwegian Refugee Council where she worked, but she refused the offer because she wouldn’t be able to bring her family. “It’s fine to live abroad but not alone without the rest of the family,” she said. Zuleikha’s alternative plan was to bring her family to Pakistan, where relatives could help them with housing and they could hopefully register as refugees.

Zuleikha, 20, sits in front of a group of other Afghans in Peshawar on Sept. 28.

Zuleikha, 20, sits in front of a group of other Afghans in Peshawar on Sept. 28. Betsy Joles for Foreign Policy

The UNHCR, the main body responsible for refugee status determinations, is issuing certificates that recognize new arrivals as asylum-seekers but is still negotiating with the Pakistani government about their rights. Despite the UNHCR operating there, Pakistan hasn’t registered new refugees since 2007. “We are under very serious pressures,” said Tammi Sharpe, a UNHCR representative during a panel last week about the Afghan crisis.

Pakistan is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention and has no domestic asylum laws. Undocumented Afghans in Pakistan have limited access to work, housing, and education, and without legal protections, they are targets of discrimination and harassment by law enforcement. Growing anti-refugee sentiment has exacerbated the problem: Since the Taliban takeover, some provinces have penalized residents who host Afghans, even as international organizations encourage Pakistan to take in more refugees.

Pakistan’s position as Afghanistan’s neighbor is not easy. The country has long contended with the violent spillover of war in Afghanistan and the dangers of Talibanization within its borders. Still, some worry that shutting legal doors for refugees is only sidestepping the problem. “As far as terrorists are concerned, they can cross over,” Khattak, the former Pakistani senator, said. “But common people, refugees, and Afghan patients who used to come to Pakistani hospitals, now they can’t.”

With the humanitarian crisis still unfolding, scores of Afghans will continue to cross by land into neighboring Pakistan and Iran, not only out of fear of the Taliban but because of starvation, illness, and desperation. The UNHCR estimates half a million people could flee Afghanistan by the end of the year. While some refugees have returned to Afghanistan hoping for peace, many others are staying put and wondering whether they’ll be able to survive in Pakistan.

“We need food, land, as we don’t have anything,” Qader said. “What will we do? All day, our children are questioning us about when we will leave this place.”

A young man stands on a rooftop overlooking a commercial area near the Torkham border crossing with Afghanistan on Sept. 28.

A young man stands on a rooftop overlooking a commercial area near the Torkham border crossing with Afghanistan on Sept. 28. Betsy Joles for Foreign Policy

Betsy Joles is a journalist in Pakistan. Twitter: @BetsyJoles

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