Undocumented migrants from Afghanistan have been given until Nov. 1 to leave voluntarily or face deportation
Pakistani residents and traders demonstrate against the new immigration policy, near Afghanistan-Pakistan border at Chaman district in Balochistan on Oct. 26. (Photo: AFP)
Pakistan said Thursday it would open several "holding centers" for undocumented migrants as a deportation deadline looms for hundreds of thousands of Afghans.
Islamabad has given Afghans it has deemed to be living illegally in Pakistan until November 1 to leave voluntarily or face deportation -- an order the Taliban government says amounts to harassment.
"These centers have been named as 'holding centers'. Illegal immigrants will be kept there," Sarfraz Bugti, the caretaker interior minister, told reporters.
"They will be provided with medical facilities and food. Children, women and elders will be treated with special respect. But at the same time, after November 1st, we will not compromise on illegal immigrants," Bugti said.
Feroz Jamal, a spokesman for the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial government, told AFP that from Wednesday undocumented Afghans in the province would be arrested and sent to one of three centers being set up for processing.
"It's a transit point. They cannot stay there for a long time. When the border officials have space, we'll send them to be deported," he told AFP.
He said 60,000 Afghans in the province have already returned ahead of the deadline, with queues building at the northern-most border crossing in Torkham.
Two of the centers are similar to aid tent camps, while the third will be established at government staff accommodation, each capable of holding 5,000 people, a government official who requested not to be named told AFP.
The order comes as Pakistan grapples with a rise in attacks the government blames on militants operating from Afghanistan, a charge Kabul routinely denies.
There is also rising anti-Afghan sentiment as a prolonged economic hardship burdens the Pakistani state.
Afghans have poured into Pakistan by the millions over decades of conflict during the Soviet invasion, the following civil war and the US-led occupation.
Around 1.3 million are registered refugees and 880,000 more have legal status to remain in Pakistan, according to the United Nations.
Islamabad says a further 1.7 million Afghans are in Pakistan illegally.
Hundreds of thousands of Afghans are estimated to have crossed since the Taliban seized power in Kabul in August 2021 and imposed their austere version of Islamic law, with many migrants seeking asylum in third countries.
Police and politicians have said a recent round-up targeted only those without legal status and was in response to rising crime and poor immigration regulation that has strained resources.
But Afghans have accused authorities of indiscriminate arrests, ignoring valid documents and extorting people for money.
Saeed Ahmed, a 39-year-old who was born in Pakistan to Afghan refugee parents and still lives in a Karachi aid camp, called for a delay in the deportations, especially with a harsh winter on its way in Afghanistan.
"The deadline is impractical -- at least six months should be given for repatriation so that we can wind up our businesses here," he told AFP on Thursday, adding that documented Afghans like himself were being targeted by police.
At the southern border crossing of Chaman in Balochistan, several thousand Pakistanis who cross frequently between the two countries have staged a days-long sit-in over tighter border controls.
Those living on both sides will now have to show passports and visas, instead of their identity cards, Islamabad has said.
Taliban authorities across the border in Spin Boldak said they were happy with the previous arrangement, but have now enforced the same rules on Pakistanis.
Afghanistan is grappling with its own economic hardship, cut off from the international banking system and heavily reliant on humanitarian aid.
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