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Afghanistan turmoil

Pakistan shuts door to further Afghan refugees

Islamabad tries to block growth of world's second largest refugee population

The crossings of Torkham, pictured here, and Chaman remain open for trade but the rest of the border with Afghanistan has been sealed by the Pakistan Army.    © AP

KARACHI -- Pakistan has deployed its army along its border with Afghanistan to block an anticipated wave of refugees and militants from entering its territory, as fighting continues to rage between the Afghan National Army and the Taliban.

Moeed Yusuf, the national security adviser to Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan, reiterated his government's stance during a recent visit to Washington that Afghans fleeing the Taliban offensive must be accommodated within Afghanistan with the help of aid agencies. He said that Pakistan did not have the capacity to shoulder the burden of more refugees.

Pakistan's Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid had earlier stated that the country would not open its borders to Afghan refugees. He said refugees would be restricted to camps along the border if the conflict escalated.

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan appears to have emboldened the Taliban. The militant group overran several key border posts neighboring Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Pakistan over the past two months, cutting off vital trade routes and financial lifelines of the Kabul regime. The Taliban is now fighting pitched battles with government forces to take over major cities such as Kandahar, Lashkargah, Kunduz and Herat in south and western Afghanistan.

Additionally, there are reports of Taliban assaults from the eastern provinces of Paktia and Nangarhar, close to the Pakistan border.

The Pakistan Army claims to have sealed the border with Afghanistan and plugged all gaps following the outbreak of civil war. Only the strategic crossings of Torkham and Chaman remain open for trade after briefly being shut in July when the Taliban wrested control of Spin Boldak -- an Afghan border town serving as a gateway for trade between the two countries.

Pakistan is in the final stages of fencing the 2,600 km border, according to government sources. This will have a big impact on those living close to the borders, as cross-border trade and business is frequently conducted without official documents.

Rahim Nasar, a journalist from Quetta -- a city 135 km east of the Afghan border -- explained: "Visiting Chaman and Spin Boldak for political and business activities is common for people like us who live on the borderlands of the [two] countries." Many visitors are able to travel without passports by bribing immigration officers on both sides, he said. 

Now, however, Afghans fleeing violence mostly shelter in refugee camps and safer destinations inside Afghanistan. There has not been a significant influx of refugees on the Pakistani border until now, said Qaiser Ali Afridi, the spokesperson for Pakistan at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Pakistani authorities fear an increase in militancy and crime due to the instability in Afghanistan. The head of Pakistan Army's media relations team, Major Gen. Babar Iftikhar, claimed in a TV interview on July 17 that since May 1 -- around the time the U.S. withdrawal began -- there have been 167 terrorist attacks in Pakistan.

On July 9, Yusuf, the national security adviser, warned a senate committee that Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militants, allegedly operating from the eastern Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nangarhar, could enter Pakistan disguised as refugees.

The TTP is a militant group targeting Pakistani security forces for their support for the U.S. war on terror. The group was flushed out of Pakistan's tribal areas in a military operation in 2014, after which its members fled to Afghanistan.

"While the threat expressed by Pakistan regarding refugees is exaggerated, the loophole still exists for anti-state elements supported by hostile agencies to take advantage of," said Abdul Basit, a research fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

Basit noted that since the TTP regrouped last year, it has increasingly mounted attacks on Pakistani forces, particularly in Balochistan and the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

Additionally, the Pakistan Army is on guard against any Afghan army incursions in hot pursuits of the Taliban. Kabul has long accused Pakistan of providing safe havens to the Taliban.

However, 46 Afghan security personnel sought refuge in the northwestern Pakistani district of Chitral on July 15 after losing their military positions to the Taliban. According to the Pakistan Army's media relations team, another 35 Afghan soldiers were given asylum on July 1 before being returned to the Afghan authorities.

Pakistani authorities say the government cannot afford to host more Afghan citizens. The country already faces twin deficits -- fiscal and current account. COVID-19 has dealt another challenge as Pakistan struggles to revive its economy.

A federal ministry overseeing Pakistan's border regions has said $2.2 billion will be needed over three years to shelter 700,000-800,000 displaced Afghan citizens who are expected to seek refuge. 

"Previously, as a U.S. ally, Pakistan did have all strategic leverage to seek funds to house Afghan refugees," said A. A. H. Soomro, a financial analyst and political commentator. "However, Pakistan is aware that any further influx may not yield anything material. There is no economic or political advantage to it," Soomro added.

Pakistan hosts 3 million Afghan refugees, including those registered and illegal entries. That places it behind Turkey as a refugee host country, which has 3.7 million Syrians displaced by war.

Afghan refugees first arrived in Pakistan during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, and continued pouring in during the civil war of the 1990s and the five-year Taliban rule that ended in 2001.

Pakistan is looking to emulate Iran in its handling of the Afghan refugee crisis. Iran hosts an estimated 800,000 Afghan refugees in purpose-built villages along the border. They are barred from leaving those areas.

In contrast, Afghan refugees in Pakistan are dispersed across the country and form a large part of the informal economy.

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