‘Where do I go back to?’: Expelled Afghans battle chaos at Pakistan border

Islamabad, Pakistan – Syed Muhammed is holding a prescription a doctor wrote for his ailing mother, whom he carried on his shoulders to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. But there are no shops to buy medicines.

“What use do I have for this paper? There is no market here. I don’t have any money. Where do I get the medicine for my mother now?” he asked Al Jazeera.

Muhammad is among nearly 1.7 million undocumented Afghan refugees and migrants ordered by the Pakistani government to leave the country by Wednesday. “Holding centres” have been set up in all of the country’s four provinces to detain “illegal” foreign nationals who do not leave by the deadline.

Afghans deportation Pakistan
Syed Muhammed carrying his ailing mother on his shoulders [Islam Gul Afridi/Al Jazeera]

Most of the refugees and migrants have converged at the Torkham border crossing in northwestern Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, awaiting exit formalities being conducted by officials belonging to Pakistan’s National Database Registration Authority.

The paperwork has resulted in a huge queue. There are no shelters, so families have been forced to sleep on top of trucks and on the open ground. Chaotic scenes have been witnessed at the transit point amid fears of a government crackdown starting Thursday against those who remain in Pakistan.

Officials said more than four million foreigners live in Pakistan, a vast majority of them Afghan nationals who have sought refuge over the past four decades. The exodus began with the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and continued during the post-9/11 US invasion and the second takeover of the government in Kabul by the Taliban in 2021.

Refugees such as Azeemullah Mohmand said their lives had been completely uprooted and they have no idea how to restart them in Afghanistan, where decades of conflict have disrupted its economy and created a humanitarian crisis.

“I lived in Pakistan for more than a decade. I have three children and a large, extended family, who are being pushed back after the government did not fulfill its promise of providing us proper documentation. I have no money, no roof. Where do I go back to?” Mohmand told Al Jazeera.

The eviction drive and lack of facilities at the border crossing have angered the returning Afghans, who chanted slogans against the Pakistani government.

“They are already kicking us out, so why do they even have to make us wait in queues and humiliate us even more? Just let us go now,” Noor Agha told Al Jazeera.

Agha, 25, who spent more than five years in Pakistan, reached the deportation centre on Tuesday night along with his family of eight.

Afghans deportation Pakistan
Afghan refugees in an open ground at Landi Kotal, 6km from Torkham border [Islam Gul Afridi/Al Jazeera]

Sardarullah, a 38-year-old Afghan labourer who worked for more than four years in Pakistan’s most populous Punjab province, also complained about the lack of privacy for women and children.

“We are sitting here out in the open with no shelter, no place to go for a washroom, no place to sit properly. First, they want to throw us out of the country, and then they don’t even fulfill promises of giving us a dignified exit,” he told Al Jazeera.

Fazal Rabbi, an official overseeing the deportation process in Landi Kotal, a city 6km (3.6 miles) from the Torkham border crossing, said he expected thousands of people to complete their identification process on Wednesday.

“It is the first day after the  expiry of the deadline, so naturally, there is a lot of rush, and things are moving a little slowly,” he told Al Jazeera.

Afghans deportation Pakistan
Afghan refugees waiting with their luggage for clearance from custom officials [Islam Gul Afridi/Al Jazeera]

Rabbi said the government is trying to provide better facilities at the crossing.

“We have set up portable toilets here while installing more in light of a heavier influx of people in the coming days. Provincial authorities have also provided us with tents to provide shelter for the people in case it rains or gets cold,” he said.

But rights group have slammed Pakistan’s decision to deport Afghan refugees and demanded Islamabad reverse its decision.

“Pakistan must meet its international legal obligations, including the principle of non-refoulement and stop the crackdown against and harassment of Afghan refugees across the country,” Amnesty International said on Tuesday night.

“More than 1.4 million refugees are at risk of being uprooted from the place they have taken refuge and called home. There is still time for Pakistan to act swiftly today to avoid creating a crisis where families are rendered homeless, denied access to livelihood and basic services, and separated in the lead-up to the harsh winter months.”

Human Rights Watch said the Pakistani government is “using threats, abuse and detention to coerce” Afghan asylum seekers without legal status to return to Afghanistan.

“The situation in Afghanistan remains dangerous for many who fled, and deportation will expose them to significant security risks, including threats to their lives and wellbeing,” it said.

Additional reporting by Islam Gul Afridi from Landi Kotal, Pakistan

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