In recent years, Pakistan has been confronted with the ongoing challenge of addressing the issue of illegal and undocumented immigration, particularly concerning Afghan nationals. Pakistan’s enduring history of hosting Afghan refugees and its close ties with Afghanistan have made this a multifaceted and delicate issue. Pakistan should underscore its sincere empathy and unwavering commitment to nurturing friendly relations with Afghanistan while expressing solidarity with the Afghan population in Pakistan.
Undoubtedly, the question of undocumented immigrants in Pakistan and the government’s determination to address this situation is of significant concern. However, it is crucial to emphasize that these efforts are not targeted at any specific nationality. Rather, they are intended to address the overarching issue of undocumented immigration, irrespective of an individual’s origin.
Pakistani caretaker Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti’s recent revelation on October 3 that approximately 1.7 million Afghan nationals are currently residing in Pakistan without proper documentation highlights the urgency of the illegal immigration challenge. This number has surged following the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan in 2021, a period marked by the withdrawal of international forces. It’s important to recognize that Pakistan has been a refuge for approximately 4.4 million Afghan refugees, with Islamabad hosting the largest number of Afghan refugees since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
Recent figures indicate that around 1.3 million Afghans are registered refugees in Pakistan, with an additional 880,000 having obtained legal status to remain, according to the latest United Nations data. These statistics underscore the substantial number of Afghan refugees who have been granted the necessary documentation to live in Pakistan over the years.
We must also acknowledge the words of Abbas Khan, Pakistan’s commissioner of Afghan refugees, who has reassured that individuals with valid legal documentation will not be affected by the recent order concerning illegal immigration.
Adding complexity to the immigration issue in Pakistan is the matter of statelessness. Accurate statistics on the statelessness population in Pakistan remain elusive, with widely differing estimates from various government sources. For instance, official Pakistani government data presented to the UNHCR in 2020 indicated only 47 stateless individuals in the country. However, a report on COVID vaccinations in 2021 by a senior government health official estimated the stateless population at a much higher figure, around 3 million.
Pakistan’s historical role in hosting Afghan refugees is pivotal to understanding the current immigration landscape. By the end of 1988, the UNHCR estimated that between four to five million Afghan refugees were residing in Pakistan. After the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, over 1.5 million refugees repatriated to Afghanistan in 2002, with more returning in subsequent years. However, with the resurgence of the Taliban, approximately 117,550 new arrivals sought refuge in Pakistan between January 2021 and June 2022.
The communities or groups at risk of statelessness can be broadly categorized into four types: ethnic Bengalis, Afghan refugees, Urdu-speaking Biharis, and Rohingyas. It is worth noting that Afghan refugees and Rohingyas have been left out of efforts to facilitate citizenship for stateless groups. Afghan refugee children in Pakistan are particularly vulnerable to statelessness, as the government has explicitly stated that they are excluded from the application of Pakistan’s citizenship law’s jus soli provisions.
Even though the nationality laws of Pakistan provide that any person with documents that prove domicile in Pakistan before 1978 can acquire citizenship, the law has not been implemented, including because of corruption and discrimination. It is estimated that 70 to 80% of the 3 million Bengali speakers in Pakistan do not have identification documents and thousands have had to register as ‘aliens’ depriving them of access to rights and services protected for citizens, Joint Submission to the Human Rights Council at the 42nd Session of the Universal Periodic Review revealed.
There are claims that they are the most discriminated ethnic group in the country. A large Bengali population resides in the Machar colony, one of Karachi’s biggest slums, housing an estimated 700,000 people. It is estimated by Imkaan Welfare Organization that 65% of them are Bengalis, more than half of who have no citizenship documents, it added.
Similarly, according to the report on June 20, 2022, the Foreign Office spokesperson Asim Iftikhar stated that there are as many as 400,000 Rohingyas taking refuge in Pakistan. The total number of Rohingyas residing in Pakistan has been a point of contention as other sources report the number to be as high as 500,000 with 300,000 residing in Karachi alone.
Pakistan’s endeavors to address illegal and undocumented immigration are multifaceted and challenging. While the government is taking steps to tackle this issue, it remains crucial to differentiate between illegal immigrants and Afghan refugees who have been warmly received in the country for decades. Striking a balance between addressing security concerns and upholding humanitarian obligations is a formidable task for Pakistan, particularly in light of its historical bonds with Afghanistan and the evolving regional landscape.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Coverpage’s editorial stance.