Afghan refugees forced out of Pakistan


For Afghan refugees like Abdul Rehman, Peshawar was a home away from home for decades until Taliban militants stormed a military school in the city on 16 December, killing more than 140 people, mostly children.

The persecution of Afghan refugees – Afghans are seen as responsible for the attack – swiftly followed.

After spending over two decades in the provincial capital of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province, Rehman and thousands of other Afghan refugees have been forced to return to Afghanistan as the law enforcement agencies have launched a nationwide operation to expel all undocumented refugees.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) suggests more than 22,000 undocumented Afghans entered Afghanistan in January alone through Pakistan’s Torkham border crossing – twice the figure for the whole of 2014.

“I was young, just married and about to start my life when we left Afghanistan during the civil war in the 1990s,” said Rehman, a father of six children and husband to an ailing wife, as he made his way back to his native country.

“Life is difficult, I had not settled yet in Peshawar when forced to migrate again back to Afghanistan where nothing is left for us”.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are nearly 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan: the largest and most protracted refugee population in the world.

But the real numbers could be higher than that, with an estimated one million undocumented migrants from Afghanistan living in the country without any legal protection.

Though the government of Pakistan has rebuffed allegations of forcefully deporting the refugees, videos posted on social media showing policemen raiding refugee camps seems to suggest otherwise.

“In Peshawar, one can observe on a daily basis that most of the Afghan refugees are arrested in various localities. Most of them are registered but they still are arrested,” Khadim Hussain, social activist and researcher, associated with the Baacha Khan Trust Educational Foundation in KPK, told Equal Times.

Hussain notes that even if they are not arrested, Afghans are continuously harassed by law enforcement agencies.



Afghan refugees in Peshawar work mostly in the hotel industry, sales, transport and manual labour.

Thanks to their joint ethnic history, the Pashtun refugees have historically mingled well with the local Pashtun community in Pakistan’s border cities like Peshawar and Queeta.

The ethnic Hazara refugees, however, have been facing persecution even before the Peshawar attack due to the fact that they are mostly Shia Muslims and have distinct facial features.

Following the December incident, the Pakistani government offered assurances Afghan refugees that the Peshawar attack would not prompt any official reprisals.

The Ministry of States and Frontier Regions even pledged that the government would “maintain its traditional hospitality” towards Afghan refugees.

But in the Hangu district of KPK province, the local government announced it would require all registered Afghan refugees to relocate to a government-supervised camp and that it would deport any undocumented Afghan citizens.

UNHCR, while recognising the security concerns of the Pakistani government, appealed to the authorities not to compromise on the basic principles regarding the protection and voluntary repatriation of refugees.

Eyeing yet another refugee disaster on both sides of the border, Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently asked the government of Pakistan not to ‘scapegoat’ Afghans.

Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at HRW said it was “inhumane, not to mention unlawful, to return Afghans to places they may face harm and not protect them from harassment and abuse.”

According to the UN, 2014 has been the deadliest year for civilians in Afghanistan, promoting the second largest refugee contingent in the world, after Syria, and placing refugees like Abdul Rehman in a difficult choice between persecution and war.