Is repatriation of illegal immigrants really possible?

repatriation of illegal immigrants

Repatriation of illegal immigrants - file foto courtesy UNHRC

by Arbaz Ahmed

Anwar Maqsood, a renowned Pakistani humorist, rose to prominence in the 1980s. In one memorable anecdote, Anwar Maqsood asked an elderly Afghan when he intended to return, to which the elderly man replied, “The old mountain can descend in the same year, but it cannot climb up. So, I will stay here.”

The underlying meaning of this story lies in a specific historical context. During a time when governments were opening borders to accommodate Afghan refugees due to the Afghan Jihad against the Russians, there were concerns, particularly in Sindh and Balochistan, about the consequences of this massive migration. However, these concerns did not receive significant attention.

Two days back US envoy met caretaker PM Anwaarul Haw Kakar and issues they discussed also included the repatriation of immigrants. In a latest development, Pakistani media quoting official sources claimed that so far So far 81,974 Afghan refugees have returned to their homeland.

In the past, when Karachi was plagued by targeted killings and unrest, especially during the ‘Aghwa Baraye Tawan’ incidents, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, took suo-motu notice of the situation. For several years, debates and discussions unfolded, with the then Federal Minister Rehman Malik attributing a significant portion of the lawlessness to the presence of illegal immigrants. He repeatedly declared that these individuals would be sent back on planes. However, it became evident that no planes were used for their return. Instead, it appeared that they were being used to create a non-serious façade.

Following a Taliban attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, the National Action Plan was formulated. This plan included provisions for the repatriation of the Taliban, and initially, some Afghan citizens were indeed sent back to their homeland. However, a prolonged silence followed, and the National Action Plan became a mere historical record.

A decade later, the federal government is once again considering the repatriation of illegal immigrants, particularly Afghan citizens, due to their alleged involvement in criminal activities. Some statistics indicate that around seventy percent of those involved in recent suicide bombings are Afghan citizens. Both the federal cabinet and the Corps Commander Conference agree that Pakistan needs to address the issue of illegal immigrants. However, given past experiences, there is skepticism regarding the implementation of these claims.

Throughout Pakistan’s history, there has been a continuous influx of Muslims from various countries, with support provided by religious groups and ethnic-based organizations. After a meeting between Liaquat Ali Khan and Jawaharlal Nehru, the Citizenship Act was enacted in 1951. Nonetheless, the influx of Muslims from India continued until the 1980s.

After the independence of Bangladesh in 1971, Bahari communities were offered refuge in Pakistan. Many families chose to stay and continued to reside individually until 1985.

Following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, development-oriented Iranian citizens altered their course towards Pakistan.

Regarding Bengalis, the policy stipulates that citizenship will be granted to Bengalis who opted to stay in Pakistan during Bangladesh’s independence, those who were present in Bangladesh at the time but then returned to Pakistan, and those Bengalis who expressed a wish to come to Pakistan for political reasons, provided they provide the necessary documentation.

In 1980, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan offered shelter to a significant number of Afghan refugees. When Muslims were persecuted in Burma, Pakistani journeys began for Burmese or Rohingya Muslims as well.

Karachi has always been the preferred destination for foreigners due to its abundant industries, employment opportunities, and pleasant climate. Initially, makeshift settlements emerged in the city’s outskirts, eventually developing into established neighborhoods, from Machar Colony to Afghan Basti. The Afghan refugee camps near Sohrab Goth in Karachi were active until the 1990s but were later closed due to insufficient funds. Consequently, these refugees dispersed to other cities in Sindh besides Karachi.

Regarding the United Nations’ refugee agency UNHCR, registered Afghan citizens in Pakistan can be voluntarily repatriated rather than forcibly under three separate agreements between UNHCR, the Afghan government, and the Pakistani government. In other words, if they choose to stay, they have the right to do so. Notably, many families returned to Pakistan after receiving thousands of dollars from the United Nations to build homes in Afghanistan.

The fear exhibited by the Pakistani government in its decision-making process can be traced back to its foreign policy, which depends on its relations with the Afghan government. Good relations and cooperation tend to alleviate government apprehension, while tensions result in a tougher stance. In the current context, experts also believe that this approach is being used to exert pressure on the Taliban government, with the effectiveness of this strategy yet to be seen.

Addressing illegal immigrants falls under standard practice, with provincial jurisdictions dealing with this issue. The police have the authority under the Foreigners Act to arrest and deport such illegal immigrants, though enforcement is not always consistent.

Policies for Afghan and other immigrant communities vary based on whether it’s a provincial or political party matter. The MQM, Muslim League-N, and PTI have shown support for Afghan immigrants. The MQM and later the PTI government even attempted to provide them with identity cards. However, they proceed cautiously due to the anticipated backlash from the people of Sindh if they were to grant citizenship to these immigrants.

One reason for this caution is that many of the third and fourth generations of these immigrants were born in Pakistan and argue that they should be granted citizenship, similar to practices in other countries. However, debates and discussions have arisen, especially on social media, regarding whether citizenship should be granted to individuals who may have been involved in illegal activities, such as drug trafficking.

Whether in Karachi or Quetta, these immigrant communities tend to disrupt the balance of native Sindhi and Baloch populations, impacting not only the political landscape but also societal and cultural dynamics.

The current situation underscores the complex interplay of political, economic, and social factors that contribute to the Pakistani government’s cautious approach to illegal immigrants and related policies.