Why Is Pakistan Expelling 1.7 Million Afghans?
Islamabad’s policy of deporting all undocumented foreigners will have widespread repercussions.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: Pakistan starts to expel 1.7 million Afghans and other undocumented foreigners, Qatar sentences to death eight Indian nationals on charges of spying for Israel, and political violence amps up in Bangladesh ahead of an important election.
Why Is Pakistan Expelling 1.7 Million Afghans?
On Wednesday, Pakistan began the process of expelling all undocumented foreigners, including 1.7 million Afghans—one of the country’s largest immigrant communities. Officials say the policy, which was first announced last month, will be implemented in phases, with migrants and refugees temporarily placed in holding centers before deportation.
Afghans in Pakistan have faced forced repatriations in the past but never on this scale. Islamabad claims the mass expulsion will protect public welfare and make Pakistan safer. But it’s likely that domestic politics and worsening relations with Taliban-led Afghanistan drove the government’s decision.
In recent weeks, Islamabad called on undocumented foreigners to leave voluntarily by Nov. 1. The government said on Monday that around 200,000 Afghan nationals had left over the past two months. Recent days have featured harrowing scenes of Afghan students hugging their Pakistani classmates goodbye and trucks lining up at the border piled high with Afghans’ belongings.
The potential repercussions of Pakistan’s draconian decision are devastating. Taliban-led Afghanistan is not prepared to accommodate masses of returnees, who will be greeted by a vast humanitarian crisis—15 million Afghans are acutely food insecure—exacerbated by drought, floods, and earthquakes. Afghanistan also faces severe global aid cuts and fewer international relief groups operating in its borders due to Taliban policies. Most returning girls and women won’t be able to attend school or work.
For decades, Pakistan has been a top destination for Afghans fleeing conflict, with several million entering the country since the 1970s, including at least 600,000 after the Taliban takeover in 2021. Pakistan prides itself on its ability to house so many Afghan refugees despite its constraints as a poor country. But human rights groups have documented Afghans facing years of discrimination at work, school, and at the hands of landlords and law enforcement. Some Pakistanis, including government officials, have accused Afghans of stealing jobs, dealing drugs, and participating in terrorism. Pakistani officials have previously ordered thousands of them to leave.
Likely for these reasons, many Afghans started to avoid Pakistan nearly a decade ago and instead fled to Europe via the Mediterranean. But for hundreds of thousands of Afghans desperate to escape their country in 2021, nearby Pakistan was the easiest option. They’re all vulnerable now—especially those who previously worked for the U.S. military and await approval to enter the United States on special immigration visas.
Islamabad insists its decision falls within applicable international norms—likely a reference to the many countries, including in the West, that deport undocumented immigrants. It emphasizes that the policy targets all undocumented foreigners, not just Afghans, and that legal immigrants aren’t affected (though reports emerged this week of some documented Afghans being deported, too). It is not clear whom, exactly, the policy will affect, but data in recent years suggests deportations may also impact migrants and refugees from Iran, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka.
Indeed, it’s clear that Afghans have become scapegoats as Pakistan weathers both one of its worst economic crises in years and a major resurgence of terrorism by the Afghanistan-based Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Last month, interim Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti accused Afghans of being involved in organized crime and terrorism and indirectly accused them of hampering Pakistan’s economic recovery.
Some Pakistanis condemn the move and have staged protests against it in recent days, though there is no recent data suggesting how many might oppose it. At any rate, public opinion is unlikely to sway Islamabad. Pakistan is led by an apolitical caretaker government preparing the country for elections in January. The military, which exerts heavy influence over the caretaker regime, is likely driving the policy. (The army chief publicly endorsed the move and attended the meeting finalizing the plan.) But it’s letting the caretaker regime—which need not worry about political blowback—take any public flak.
Additionally, Pakistan’s relations with the Taliban have worsened because Islamabad thinks the group has not done enough to curb the presence of TTP fighters and bases in Afghanistan. Islamabad may be using the expulsion policy in part to compel the Taliban—which have condemned the move—to help more on counterterrorism. Sadly, vulnerable Afghans—from young new arrivals to older and established residents who embrace Pakistan as their only home—are becoming casualties of broader geopolitical machinations.
What We’re Following
Qatar sentences eight Indians to death. On Oct. 26, an Indian External Affairs Ministry statement revealed that a court in Qatar had sentenced to death eight Indian nationals. The men, who were reportedly jailed last year, were all former members of the Indian Navy who had gone to Qatar to train its naval personnel. Qatar’s government has not discussed the case publicly, though a Financial Times report claims the men were convicted of spying for Israel.
This verdict poses a fresh diplomatic challenge for India. It marks the second time in just over six weeks—following an ongoing spat with Canada—that India has experienced a crisis with a top partner. But unlike New Delhi’s relationship with Ottawa, long hampered by tensions over the issue of Sikh separatism, its partnership with Doha is usually stable and largely problem-free.
India relies heavily on Qatar for fuel imports, especially liquefied natural gas, and the 800,000 Indians based in Qatar are a key source of remittances. Additionally, Qatar is an important player in the latest Israel-Hamas war. The country, which is home to top Hamas leaders, is mediating talks between Israel and Hamas on hostages and aid. India has taken an uncharacteristically strong pro-Israel stance during the war—a position that has concerned some of its top Arab partners.
In contrast to its sharp public rhetoric against Canada, India will tread carefully while navigating the crisis given these geopolitical sensitivities. Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar met with the convicted men’s families in recent days, and New Delhi has given repeated public assurances that it is working to assist and even release them. Otherwise, India has said little publicly.
New Delhi is working with Qatari officials and exploring its options to provide legal relief for the men. Legal experts say it won’t be easy to get their sentences commuted given the seriousness of espionage charges. One diplomatic option could be to turn to a 2015 India-Qatar prisoner exchange deal, but this would first require Doha to reduce the sentences to life in prison.
Political violence increases in Bangladesh. On Saturday, Dhaka’s streets filled with one of Bangladesh’s largest opposition protests in months. Thousands of members of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) called on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to resign and turn power over to a caretaker administration until elections scheduled for January. The protests turned violent, with demonstrators throwing stones at police and law enforcement firing tear gas. Hundreds of BNP members and supporters, including several top leaders, have since been arrested.
The ruling Awami League (AL) party and the opposition offer diametrically opposed accounts: The AL contends the BNP provoked the violence, while the BNP insists it was actually the police. Some government critics in private discussions with me in recent days accused AL goons of staging the violence to give the government a pretext to crack down harder on the BNP.
There was additional violence on Tuesday, with two people killed and dozens wounded in clashes between police and the opposition. Protests are expected to continue. The government and opposition now appear to be on a collision course: The BNP is doubling down on its core demand that Hasina make way for a caretaker, and Dhaka has continuously refused. The more the opposition escalates, the more defiant the government will likely become. Neither side will want to give an inch. As political polarization worsens, expect the months before elections to feature more political instability and rising risks of violence.
Update: The U.S. government has rejected an allegation made in an Indian media report, referenced in South Asia Brief last week, that it gave an ultimatum to Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to resign by Nov. 3.
Jehovah’s Witness prayer session attacked in India. Multiple blasts hit a Jehovah’s Witness prayer session on Sunday in the southern Indian state of Kerala, leaving three people dead and more than 50 injured. On Tuesday, authorities arrested a man named Dominic Martin as a suspect. Martin confessed on Facebook to planning the attack, claiming he was a former Jehovah’s Witness who is angry with the group’s teachings, but local officials from the group said he was not a registered member.
Though Kerala has experienced religious violence in the past, especially anti-Christian attacks, the state has historically been more religiously tolerant than many other parts of India.
Reactions to the tragedy show the dangers of disinformation on social media. Some Indians posted messages on X that appeared to link Islamist militancy to the attack by pointing out that a large pro-Palestinian protest had recently taken place in Kerala. The posters may have been inspired by Indian Deputy IT Minister Rajeev Chandrashekhar, who accused Kerala’s government—controlled by a rival party—on social media of appeasing radical groups such as Hamas, using the hashtags #KochiTerrorAttacks and #HamasTerrorists.
FP’s Most Read This Week
- Saudi Arabia Is Mysteriously Absent in the Israel-Hamas War by Steven A. Cook
- The Best Books for Understanding the Israel-Hamas War by FP Staff and FP Contributors
- Are Chinese Battery Companies the Next Huawei? by Craig Singleton
Under the Radar
In recent years, Pakistan has seen a resurgence of anti-state terrorism, most of it perpetrated against police and soldiers by the TTP. However, recent clashes in the Kurram district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province are a sobering reminder of an additional threat posed by sectarian militancy. Eight days of fighting began last week after a controversial video surfaced that reportedly featured “sectarian content.” The violence, which featured what one Pakistani official called “heavy and sophisticated weapons,” may have resulted in as many as 40 deaths.
On Tuesday, local officials and elders reportedly brokered a cease-fire, but the region remains restive. Kurram has a legacy of sectarian extremism, especially anti-Shiite violence. In May, seven Shiite schoolteachers were killed in an attack; in July, fighting provoked by land disputes resulted in at least 11 deaths. An editorial in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn recently argued that the failure to proactively tackle these tensions dooms the district to more violence. Reactive approaches, according to the editorial, keep “the lid on underlying tensions for a brief period, then disputes explode at the slightest provocation.”
A Dhaka Tribune editorial laments Bangladesh’s failure to leverage its large youth population. The country’s youth is “one of [its] biggest advantages … an advantage that we continuously fail to grasp,” the publication writes. “But that prospect becomes even worse when we realize that, even when armed with a degree, our youth find it harder and harder to find employment.”
Author Nilakantan RS argues in the Print that debates about whether India will become the next superpower must be mindful of the country’s serious human development challenges: With an [infant mortality rate] that’s about as good or bad as Sub-Saharan Africa when no one thinks that part of the world is going to be a superpower, what gives India that confidence?
Activist Shreen Abdul Saroor writes in Daily FT about the plight of the 75,000 to 100,000 Muslims expelled from Sri Lanka’s Northern Province in 1990 who are unable to return today: “In any forthcoming elections the northern Muslims have to think seriously and use their franchise to choose a new leadership that could take forward their issues genuinely as a right-based issue and demand for accountability for eviction.”
Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman
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