Image: REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

By Alex Pollock

On 3 October, the government of Pakistan announced that all “illegal immigrants” must leave the country by 1 November or face forced deportation. The announcement has been criticised by foreign governments and international rights organisations for its alleged targeting of the approximately 1.7 million Afghans living in the country as refugees and displaced persons.  Pakistan’s Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti announced that those who voluntarily turn themselves in will receive “incentives and help” with their relocation. However, those who do not leave voluntarily will face arrest, detention, and deportation with no assistance. Those leaving are allowed to take up to 50,000 Pakistani rupees ($180) out of the country. Bugti emphasised that there will be no deadline extensions, and any Afghan person found without proper documentation will be handed over to Afghan authorities. He also warned that businesses and property owned by Afghans are also at risk of seizure. However, the decision is said to not affect those who are officially registered as refugees in Pakistan or those with proper paperwork to be in the country.

While the government has not disclosed information on how undocumented persons will be tracked, the Ministry of Interior Affairs has been tasked with locating those without papers and facilitating their deportation. When asked about the process, Bugti said that “the state has all the information about the areas where these migrants are hiding.” Following an arrest, those without legal paperwork will be held in newly built detention centres while being processed. Pakistanis found assisting those without papers will be subject to action against them by the Interior Ministry. After 1 November, only those with valid passports and visas will be allowed to enter Pakistan, marking a shift in policy that formerly allowed Afghans to use national identity cards as valid travel documents. The waitlist for Afghans seeking passports is long, and a Pakistani visa can take months to be issued.

The Pakistani government claims the crackdown on Afghans in the country is due to an increase in attacks carried out by Afghan nationals in Pakistan. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which is allegedly supported by the Afghan Taliban, has stepped up its attacks on the Pakistani government, and, so far, the government has been unable to contain the threat. The Afghan Taliban denies that it is allowing the TTP to operate from its territory, however, the Pakistani government claims its security woes are partially to blame on Afghanistan and Afghans living in Pakistan. Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, responded to Pakistan’s plan to deport Afghans, asking the government to “reconsider the decision, as security concerns in Pakistan have nothing to do with Afghans.” This isn’t the first time Pakistan has tried to expel Afghans from the country. In 2016, over 600,000 Afghans left Pakistan in what Human Rights Watch called, “the world’s largest unlawful mass forced return of refugees in recent times.”

Countries like the United Kingdom are restarting evacuation flights for Afghans who had connections to their governments during the 20-year Western occupation, to speed up the relocation process. Initially, the UK required that all Afghans who wanted to relocate to the UK wait for their visas to be processed in Pakistan, however, the dangers these individuals could face if they return to Afghanistan has led to an accelerated process. Those who worked for or assisted foreign governments before the Taliban returned to power in August 2021 are in danger of retaliation from the Taliban if they return to Afghanistan. The same can be said for Christians who are also forced to return. With churches being able to operate more openly in Pakistan than in Afghanistan, many refugees have the opportunity to hear about Jesus while staying in Pakistan. However, this freedom will not be afforded them back in Afghanistan, so the global Church can pray for these new believers to withstand the trials of persecution that may come upon their return.

According to the Open Doors World Watch List, Afghanistan is ranked as one of the most dangerous, hostile countries for Christians, due to heavy governmental and societal persecution. Those who can relocate to the West may face friendlier circumstances in terms of persecution levels, however, the adjustment to a new culture, a new home, and a new way of life can still take a toll on individuals and families. UK churches and Christian organisations can come alongside these new arrivals to ease their transition and remind them of the eternal hope they hold amid difficult circumstances. They can also demonstrate the love of Christ to Afghans who have not yet had the privilege of hearing the Gospel, by helping them in practical ways and extending hospitality.

Please join us in prayer for the following:

  • For Afghan refugees in Pakistan as they discern what to do to ensure their and their family’s safety
  • For the Pakistani government to treat foreigners within their country with kindness, compassion, and respect
  • For the global Church to come alongside those in Afghanistan and Pakistan as both countries navigate extreme security challenges