Afghans in limbo as Pakistan continues to deport refugees

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Abdullah was a well-known public figure in Afghanistan, a journalist and university lecturer respected by his readers and students.

In Pakistan, however, he is laying low -- worried about being caught in a deportation dragnet and after two years still waiting to be evacuated to the West.

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He fled Afghanistan when the Taliban returned to power in August 2021 on the advice of US officials and Reporters Without Borders (RSF), fearing retribution from the new authorities who, as a militant group, had a history of targeting journalists.

The 30-year-old crossed into Pakistan along with an estimated 600,000 other Afghans, with tens of thousands promised asylum in third countries.

But more than 345,000 Afghans have returned to their country or been deported since Pakistan in October ordered undocumented migrants or those who have overstayed their visas to leave.

“For fear of the police, I haven’t left this room for 15 days,” said Abdullah, using a pseudonym for security reasons.

“If I could have led a normal life in Kabul, I would have become a street vendor or shopkeeper. I would have preferred that to my current situation.”

Rights groups have said many Afghans have been left in limbo -- their visas expired because of delays in the Pakistan registration system. Thousands are trapped in an interminable relocation process established by Western nations, which has significantly slowed.

Abdullah has a valid visa, but said armed police have twice raided his home.

“In Kabul, I was a journalist and university teacher. Here I’ve lost my identity,” he told AFP from an apartment in Islamabad.

Since fleeing Afghanistan he has exchanged only two or three e-mails with US officials.

RSF has arranged an interview for him at the French embassy in Islamabad.

‘Need to live’

Ahmed, a former British army interpreter in Afghanistan, was approved for evacuation two years ago yet remains stuck in an Islamabad hotel room paid for by the UK’s diplomatic mission.

“I have been here more than 700 days,” the 32-year-old said bitterly.

“I don’t know the reason why the UK Government is doing injustice with me, why I have been stuck here. I need a life, I need education and I want to build my new home,” said Ahmed, also using a pseudonym.

His Pakistan visa expired over a year ago, and he fears being deported to Afghanistan, even though Islamabad has pledged not to kick out people in his situation.

“When I text my caseworker, he’s telling me: ‘Be patient, be patient, be patient’,” he told AFP.

“The worst word is ‘Be patient’,” said Ahmed, who is also supported by Sulha Alliance -- an association campaigning for Afghan interpreters who worked with the British army.

Many Afghan refugees, migrants and asylum seekers feel forgotten by the world, which has turned its attention to other crises, such as the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza.

While Britain has welcomed 21,500 Afghans as part of its resettlement programs for former employees and people at risk, 70 percent of them arrived when Kabul was evacuated by the chaotic airlift that coincided with the Taliban takeover.

Only 175 people have been resettled in the first six months of 2023, according to the Migration Observatory, which analyses UK Home Office statistics.

The United States has taken in 90,000 Afghans since August 2021 -- again, the majority from the evacuation of Kabul.

Precise data on Afghans in Pakistan awaiting resettlement abroad is not available, but British media have reported that more than 3,000 Afghans are in Islamabad awaiting evacuation, while the German foreign ministry said 1,500 Afghans approved for asylum are still in Pakistan or Iran.

About 20,000 people recommended for asylum by US officials, NGOs and American media outlets are waiting in Pakistan for their cases to be examined, according to Refugees International.

Despite assurances from the Pakistan government that legitimate cases will not be deported, there are exceptions.

Last month, seven members of one family waiting to be reunited with a relative in Spain were deported, according to the Spanish Commission for Aid to Refugees.

‘State of uncertainty’

Women’s rights advocate Afsaneh, who arrived in March 2022 when the Taliban authorities began rounding up activists, lamented the “state of uncertainty.”

The 38-year-old’s children were not allowed into the Pakistani school system and the visa for one of them has not been extended.

“It’s near to two years... but still my case is not processed,” said Afsaneh, whose name has also been changed by AFP.

“It’s delayed by Pakistan and by the embassies, who are not taking serious action about those who are facing threats and risks,” she said.

Afsaneh has applied to Germany, Spain and Canada for asylum, but only the latter has kept in touch.

The crackdown by Pakistan authorities does seem to have pushed some Western nations to speed up procedures.

At the end of October, Britain resumed evacuation flights that had been interrupted for several months.

“If they (the international community) want to support the Afghan people, they should prove it in action,” pleads Munisa Mubariz, 33, a women’s rights activist who hopes to leave for Canada soon.

“They should implement their commitment and their plan and their promises to these refugees.”

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