An independent think-tank

Afghan refugees and border control: Pakistan’s challenges and policy options

Urooj Jafri

1. Introduction and background

Following the Taliban’s capture of the Afghan capital last year, thousands were seen rushing to the Kabul airport in an effort to to flee out of the country. While in the beginning many were evacuated directly to countries in the West, later some were flown out to Qatar and then onwards. Scores of other Afghan people later sought to cross into neighbouring Pakistan and Iran to file for emigration in western missions, most of which had closed their outlets in Kabul.

Those trying to flee were largely workers and associates of foreign funded non-governmental organisations (NGOs), local and international media, and health, education and other sectors funded by the US, Canada and others such the United Kingdom, France, Germany, etc. These countries had announced to evacuate Afghans who had worked for their respective projects in Afghanistan.

As of now, thousands of ‘transiting’ Afghans are still stranded in Pakistan due to delays in the processing of their emigration papers.[1] Many experts cite the outbreak of the Ukraine war and influx of over 3 million Ukrainian refugees in Europe as the main reasons for this delay.[2]

According to UNHCR, more than 300,000 Afghans have fled to Pakistan since the Taliban takeover of Kabul. However, Pakistani authorities claim about 60,000 to 70,000 Afghans have entered Pakistan since then. Most of these new Afghans have entered Pakistan through valid documents.[3] Similarly, most of the new Afghan refugees are concentrated in Quetta, Peshawar, and Islamabad. Persian speaking Afghans with Tajik and Uzbek ethnic identities are mostly staying in Rawalpindi/Islamabad region, while ethnic Pashtun Afghans are mostly living in Quetta and Peshawar. While about 40 percent of the new Afghan refugees in Pakistan hail from Kabul, others are from various regions of northern Afghanistan such as Sheberghan and Sar-e-Pul, as well as southern city of Jalalabad.[4]

Most of these emigrating Afghans are well-educated and financially well-off. They hail from families whose members had either jobs or other financial linkages with the Afghan government and/or other western, international institutions operating in Afghanistan. They left Afghanistan mainly due to an acute financial crisis and receding hopes of a revival of Afghan economy due to ‘vague’ policies of the Taliban.[5]

Some of them had been part of the Afghan army or police and had as such been part of the government’s war against the Taliban. With the Taliban’s return to power, they were afraid of being hunted. While some of them came to Pakistan, most opted to travel to Iran, mainly to “avoid possible victimisation by the Pakistani government which considered the previous Afghan government as hostile, and, secondly, to avoid revenge attacks by displaced Afghans (most of which were Pashtun) affected by previous government’s security operations.”[6]

Former officials of Afghan military and police were not the only ones who preferred Iran over Pakistan for refuge and asylum. During the weeks following Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, a BBC correspondent Secunder Kermani traveled to the Zaranj border area in southwestern Afghanistan to meet ordinary Afghans fleeing to Iran.[7] He reported that some 4,000 to 5,000 Afghans, mostly from low-income urban as well as agrarian backgrounds, were being taken across the border every day by human smugglers after paying Taliban border guards. Since Iran had closed the border crossing points at Zaranj, these refugees were crossing into Pakistan’s Balochistan province for onward travel to Mirjaveh and other destinations in eastern Iran.

These migrants predominantly came from the Persian speaking belt in northern and western Afghanistan. Their relocation to Iran is linked to their geographical contiguity as well as ethnic, linguistic, and cultural affinity with the Iranian population across the border. Most of them adhere to Shia sect of Islam, which is the predominant religion in Iran.

Vulnerable Afghans in the northern Afghanistan have also been seeking refuge in the bordering Central Asian states. There were reports in November 2021 that around 500 to 600 Afghans were crossing into Tajikistan every day.[8] The country registered some 7,500 refugees during 2021, adding to around 6,500 who had already been living there. Tajikistan has since stopped accepting more refugees and has deported some asking them to await a decision on their asylum applications.

According to a UNHCR report in October 2020, nearly five million Afghans remained displaced outside of the country, of which 90 percent were hosted by Pakistan and Iran.[9] Citing figures communicated by the Iranian government, the report said there were around 780,000 registered and some two million undocumented Afghans living in Iran. Meanwhile, estimates by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) put the post-2021 number of Afghan refugees to Iran at around 300,000.[10]

These figures closely match the number of Afghan refugees moving to Pakistan post-August 2021. While most among the new arrivals are from middle and upper middle-class families and individuals from educated urban backgrounds, it has not always been like this. A look at the migration history in the Af-Pak region shows an evolving demographic pattern of cross-border movements dating back to the times of pre-partition India.

Experts say that Afghans have always been prone to migration due to various factors. For one, they are geographically located at a transit route for traders and invaders between India and Central Asia. The harsh mountainous terrain of the country offers limited prospects for agricultural activity, thus pushing large segments of population to a pastoral, nomadic lifestyle. The country also lacks employment opportunities due to a near absence of major industries.

The British rulers of India demarcated their empire from Afghanistan through a hurriedly drawn border in 1893 which divided villages, communities, and families. The intention was to secure their colony against the expanding influence of Tsarist Russia. But it created anger and frustration among the Pashtun and Baloch tribes that were divided by the Durand Line. However, being porous, the border allowed freedom of movement to the divided families and tribes. A 2022 report by the European Union Agency for Asylum (EUAA) noted that the movement of people across the (Afghanistan-Pakistan) border between 1947 and the 1970s was limited “to a few thousand nomads, traders, and families with historic connections across both sides of the border.”[11] The numbers gradually increased and more and more people crossed into Pakistan for reasons including cross-border trade, family ties, education, work, medical services, or in order to flee violence.

The Soviet-Afghan war (1979-89) caused mass exodus of vulnerable populations to Pakistan, Iran and other neighbouring countries. Over 1.5 million Afghans crossed over into Pakistan during that period. A majority of them hailed from rural areas and were displaced due to fighting and air raids. Most of them ended up in refugee camps set up for them by the Pakistani government with international funding.

A second wave of migration started when a civil war among various “mujahideen” groups erupted following the Soviet troops withdrawal, which continued until the emergence of the Taliban in the mid-1990s.

By that time, the international aid as well as Pakistani people’s warm response towards the Afghan refugees had started to wane. According to a Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) report, UNHCR’s aid and interventions in Pakistan to handle the Afghan refugees had come to a halt by 1998. This was later combined with the closed border policy introduced by General Pervez Musharraf on the pretext of border security, who insisted on the repatriation of Afghan refugees and refused to take in more refugees.[12]

Repatriation of Afghans to their homeland also happened during the post-9/11 period when American troops landed in Afghanistan to combat terrorism. The UNHCR data shows that it facilitated the voluntary repatriation of over 4.3 million Afghan nationals from Pakistan between 2002 and 2021.[13]

As such, the post-2021 migration may well be seen as the third major wave of refugees from Afghanistan during the last four decades. It is not as big as the previous waves, mainly because all the neighbouring countries have closed their borders to new refugees. And there are virtually no international funds available to house and feed the refugees.

As cited earlier, a majority of the new refugees arriving in Pakistan hail from educated urban classes, unlike the 1980s and 1990s when rural farming and pastoral communities dominated the flow. It doesn’t mean that the latter groups have decided to stay in Afghanistan this time. There has been movement, though largely invisible.[14] According to some reports, Afghan economy has virtually collapsed and there are widespread food shortages. As a result, more than half (24.4 million) of the country’s 41.7 million people are in urgent need of humanitarian support, and if these conditions prevail, almost 97 percent of the Afghan population will be faced with the risk of “sinking into poverty”. Also, inequality of women is rising under the conservative Taliban rule.[15]

According to a Pakistani researcher and security analyst, Dr Ayesha Siddiqua, there is a mixed pattern of refugee influx from Afghanistan this time.

“Many have come silently, many others tried to come but were discouraged; Pakistan also deported many that crossed over. I can’t cite numbers but definitely far less tried to move as compared to the previous years of conflict. I believe that the international attitude of turning a blind eye to the Afghan issue has had a major impact on numbers. There are two angles. First, Afghans that had the financial and political capacity to move, moved out. Second, the poor or less powerful can sense the unwelcome attitude abroad and have accepted the change as fait accompli.”[16]

2. An appraisal of Pakistan’s refugee policy

Pakistan is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention (Geneva Convention) of 1951 and the Refugee Protocol of 1967 which define the term ‘refugee’ and outline rights of refugees as well as legal obligations of the host states to protect them. As such, Pakistan is not legally bound to accept any refugees on its soil.

The country also does not have a national policy on migration. There are no laws to define refugees and spell out their rights. Foreign nationals’ entry and stay in Pakistan are regulated under four laws: the Foreigners Act of 1946; the Naturalisation Act of 1926; the Pakistan Citizenship Act of 1951; and the Citizenship Rules of 1952. But there are no rules and criterion to determine who is a foreign visitor and who is a refugee, or how long one can remain a refugee before being considered for citizenship. Until last year, Pakistan’s policy was to extend refugee status to those classified as refugees by the UNHCR.[17]

Though the Naturalisation Act offers nationality to children born in Pakistan, this provision is not extended to Afghan refugees, and all such requests were rejected at both the administrative and judicial levels.[18]

But since the country has been hosting millions of Afghan refugees for over four decades, it has evolved a system to manage refugee affairs. In 1980, after the first wave of Afghan refugees hit the country, the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions (SAFRON) set up the office of the Chief Commissioner of Afghan Refugees (CCAR). Its aim was to coordinate with international humanitarian agencies, such as the UNHCR, which also set up its permanent office in Pakistan in the same year. Besides, the Commissionerate was tasked to register and regulate the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that were moving in to deliver aid and support to the refugees. With its central office in Islamabad, the Commissionerate had sub-offices in all the four provinces of Pakistan.

Despite this institutional arrangement, Pakistan showed no inclination to mainstream the refugee issue into its overall national planning. That led to a lack of coordination among the provincial and federal entities, and an ad-hoc management of most policies and mechanisms enacted to deal with the Afghan refugees. Such an approach “might bring flexibility into policy-making, but it is not the best one for problem-solving.”[19]

Many analysts believe that this ad-hoc-ism in Pakistan’s refugee policy was driven by its strategic aims in Afghanistan. During the cold war, when massive Western funds had started to pour into Pakistan, it had a chance to channel a part of those funds to achieve its own ends. According to a 2008 UNHCR paper, despite the UN agency’s presence in Pakistan, the Pakistani government remained in control of refugee management.[20]

According to one account, for the Afghans to be recognised as refugees and thus become eligible for international assistance, they had to register with one of the seven Afghan “mujahideen” groups which enjoyed Pakistan’s support in their fight against the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan. The purpose was to give these groups the required manpower to fight the Russian army in Afghanistan; Pakistan had tacit support of the West in this regard. This led the UNHCR to effectively suspend its practice of prima facie recognition of refugees.

Following the withdrawal of Russian troops from Afghanistan in 1989, the process of registering refugees came to a halt. Beginning in 1992, Pakistan embarked on a policy of forced eviction of refugees by closing down camps saying they served as recruitment centres for armed groups.[21] The police were reportedly authorised to harass the refugees by making random arrests without a warrant.[22] Since the authorities made no effort to differentiate between civilians in need and armed militants in refugee areas, thousands of refugees had to return to Afghanistan against their will.

However, due to continued vulnerability of life in Afghanistan, the refugee inflow across the porous borders continued. According to a report by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), there were over 2.84 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan in December 2021.[23]

In 2007, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the UNHCR signed a tripartite agreement which finally gave Afghan refugees in Pakistan the right to register and obtain a Proof of Registration (PoR) card. These cards were issued by Pakistan’s National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) in collaboration with SAFRON and the UNHCR. The cards had to be renewed every year and were valid until 2020, after which their data has been shifted to biometric identity documents.[24]

The PoR cardholders can temporarily stay in Pakistan, have freedom of movement, and have access to public health and education. They can rent property, open bank accounts and can register births in the family. They cannot legally work, although many do work in the informal sector. According to UNHCR, verification of around 1.4 million registered refugees had been completed and close to one million had been issued the PoRs by June 2022.[25]

In 2017, Pakistan had launched another program, too, to register the hitherto undocumented Afghans by issuing them Afghan Citizenship Cards (ACCs). The ACC is a temporary identity document for Afghans having no other forms of identification and offers limited benefits compared with the PoR. ACC holders are entitled to stay temporarily in Pakistan and have freedom of movement but cannot access public health services or public education. Around 840,000 refugees had been issued these cards by the end of 2021.[26]

With the latest developments following the Taliban’s return to power last year, Pakistan, like other countries in the region, has officially closed its borders to new refugees. Saleem Khan, Chief Commissioner Afghan Refugees explained Pakistan’s policy to Freedom Network (FN) in the following words: “We have a clear policy, that is: no new influx is accepted.” He argued that this time around the Afghan people were not confronted with persecution or threats to their lives and properties, but faced shortage of food, medicines, and other needs due to the financial situation and droughts, which required assistance from the international community within Afghanistan.[27]

Many believe that Pakistan’s approach towards the refugee problem has not helped the displaced Afghan people and, instead, added to their miseries. At least two generations of refugees have been born and raised in Pakistan, but they have no right to nationality and other legal protections. On the contrary, many of them, especially the undocumented Afghans, “face a high risk of official and societal discrimination, including harassment by security services.”[28]

Those arriving Pakistan after the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul last year face a host of other problems including inflationary pressures, liquidity problems and difficulty in finding affordable accommodation.[29] Khudainoor Nasar, an Islamabad-based correspondent for BBC Pashto service, asserted that while many new refugees have come after obtaining a Pakistani visa, the majority of them have crossed over either through remote border routes or by bribing officials at the crossing points at Torkham and Chaman.[30] While the latter managed to settle with refugee populations in small towns and villages, those who came on valid visas remained stranded. They were mostly employees of Western organisations who wanted to transit through Pakistan to other countries mainly in the West. Their travel and hotel accommodation were funded by their sponsors. Due to long delays in emigration approvals, Pakistani visas of most of them have expired making their stay in the country illegal. “They need to return to Afghanistan before they can apply for a fresh Pakistani visa, and many are not willing to do that because funding by their sponsors has tapered off and they are also afraid the Taliban will arrest them.”[31]

Those who bore their own travel and accommodation expenses were even worse off. Only few of them had any cash with them as their bank accounts in Afghanistan had been frozen. As they started arriving in Islamabad and elsewhere in large numbers, local house rents went up by at least 50 percent. While they were desperate to find shelter, local hotels and guesthouses were already occupied to full capacity. This even created problems for Pakistani citizens seeking rented accommodations.[32]

Some refugee groups, mainly from the northwestern region of Afghanistan, who couldn’t afford rentals set up camps outside Islamabad’s National Press Club as well as in the empty area alongside the city’s Marriot Hotel. They held a sit-in for months with banners reading ‘Kill Me’, among other things.[33] The families housed near the Marriot were later forced to leave the spot by the police, possibly to prevent their exposure to foreign visitors staying at the hotel. Those outside the NPC are still lying there.

There were also protests by Afghan musicians and civil society groups in Peshawar around early June 2022 after police arrested four Afghan musicians for being illegal residents. Following repeated protests, a court granted them bail and the authorities promised they will issue them registration cards. Around 150 Afghan music artists have moved to Peshawar since the Taliban took power last year.[34]

Since the Commissionerate of Afghan Refugees only deals with the registered refugees, the new refugees are not getting any information or support from it. This is also true for the civil society organisations (CSOs). Some observers hold that this is because of the absence of a clear policy or guidelines from the government about new arrivals. The Commissionerate has no shortage of resources, but CSOs can help Afghan refugees only after receiving instructions from the SAFRON.”[35]

A vague refugee policy has been among the key factors of Pakistan’s diminishing credibility in Afghanistan. Despite hosting millions of refugees, and granting them housing, educational, and health facilities, among other things, Pakistan has remained an object of hate in Afghanistan not only during the previous “unfriendly” governments but also during the present Taliban rule.[36] “The anti-Pakistan narrative is so strong that it remains the only narrative across populations old and young, and across households, communities, districts and regions.”[37]

On the other hand, the new Taliban regime faces multiple challenges and risks, such as an evolving terrorism campaign by the Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K) group, a possible fracturing of the broad Taliban coalition itself which may lead to another round of civil war, resistance against Taliban rule by urban population and ethno-religious minorities, and an economic breakdown that is leading to a grave humanitarian crisis.[38]

3. Afghan refugees can help Pakistan promote its soft image

Analysts believe that any policy by Pakistan to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan will require a 360-degree turn in its long-pursued regional approach. For many, this is not something the country can achieve in the short term. But it is an important thing for Pakistan to do because its own political and economic survival depends on stability in Afghanistan and the region.

Needless to say, Pakistan and Afghanistan need to establish good neighbourly relations. To start with, they need to develop some joint counterterrorism and border security mechanisms wherein they undertake to not support the militant groups hurting either side.[39] Secondly, Pakistan needs to strictly tame the clergy and bring within acceptable levels the madrassa culture in the country,[40] which will not only help in countering domestic radicalism but also add to neighbours’ confidence in the country’s countering extremism discourse.

In the short term, Pakistan can easily win hearts and minds of Afghan people with a sympathetic visa policy and facilitation of cross-border movement. But there are no signs yet that Pakistani strategists are thinking in that direction at the moment.

Some observers underscore that Pakistan needs to make relevant laws, which will not only help in removing uncertainty on the refugees’ status in Pakistan but could also open up more avenues of international support for Pakistan’s s refugee management.

More than 65 percent of the Afghan population in Pakistan is under the age of 25.[41] The circumstances are not ideal for them to return any time soon. So even if Pakistan is not willing to give them citizenship, it should at least offer a legal status to children born in Pakistan, with the right to education, work, residence, as well as the right to own property. “Access to quality education is not only essential for these young Afghans to find employment and self-sustenance, but also to develops their profile better for resettlement or migration to third countries, and even reintegration to Afghanistan.”[42] Some observers even recommend for Pakistan to have a uniform policy on educational and skills needs of all youth in the country, whether local or refugee, instead of running parallel systems.

In addition, Pakistan also needs to put an end on the persisting ambiguity caused by different legal statuses of PoR holders, ACC holders and the undocumented refugees. They should be issued a holistic long-term legal residency so as to simplify their long-term management by the government.[43]

Many of the needs of the old and new refugees are similar, such as the need for shelter, livelihood, health and education. However, security appears to be the most important need of the new refugees. According to one account, “since most of these newly arrived Afghan refugees are women and children, their protection is extremely important.”[44]

As noted earlier, NGOs also avoid communication with new refugees. A Freedom Network report quoted an NGO worker as saying that as they could not do anything for the refugees, they avoided communicating with them or raising their expectations. NGOs themselves rely on UNHCR to get updates and data about new Afghan refugees.[45]

Experts believe that this situation needs to change. An expert consultation on Afghanistan, held in Islamabad in March 2022, noted that Pakistan in the current situation requires an “all-encompassing parliament-led policy that focuses provision of humanitarian assistance and on winning hearts and minds of the Afghan people. Along with humanitarian assistance, Pakistan’s present Afghan policy must address its bilateral equation with Afghanistan and counter-terrorism mechanisms.”[46]

Some experts believe that Pakistan needs to highlight the support it has been rendering to the Afghan people. For instance, Pakistan has funded a huge hospital in Kabul, built an engineering block in Balkh University, and established a faculty of arts at Kabul University.[47] But none of this is publicly known, because Pakistan has been reluctant to promote its humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan. Similarly, most members of Afghanistan’s cricket team learned the game during their time of refuge in Pakistan, but Pakistan “never issued any ‘emerging refugee stars’ certificates to them to highlight its contribution.[48]

But given the emerging international realities in terms of politics, war and economy, Pakistan will sooner or later need to find ways to evolve a policy that is driven towards achieving harmony in regional as well as international relations. As Afrasiab Khattak pointed out during PIPS-led expert consultation cited earlier, Pakistan needs to develop a policy towards Afghanistan that will help evolve a “bilateral security framework that focuses the brotherly relations between two sovereign countries, irrespective of great powers’ preferences. The new policy is indispensable as all other approaches and objectives (of Pakistan) are interlinked with its Afghan policy.”[49]

4. Border control: implications for bilateral trade, travel, and security

Pakistan has fenced it border with Afghanistan for several reasons. These include checking militant infiltration, preventing smuggling of drugs and weapons, and preventing large-scale migrations from Afghanistan during any future crises.

Pakistan first proposed to build a 2,500km long fence along the Durand Line in 2005. The decision was endorsed by the US, which had military presence in Afghanistan to curb militancy and support the democratic process there.[50] But progress on the project stopped after the fencing of a 35km stretch as it triggered opposition from both Afghanistan and the US-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), saying it will divide the population living on both sides of the border.[51] In 2017, Pakistan began erecting a chain-link fence equipped with surveillance cameras and infrared detectors. According to a EUAA report, 94 percent of the border had been fenced by the end of 2021.[52]

Pakistani officials maintain that the fencing is part of the broader border management that is meant to addresses security threats to Pakistan as well as Afghanistan. According to one official account, “both countries had previously reiterated allegations of undesirable and illegal movement, after which [Pakistan] decided to document all movement.”[53]

Initially, the Pakistani authorities were planning to provide for at least 18 border crossings to facilitate movement of local people,[54] but so far only eight crossing points have been set up. Four of these have been made operational, while only two of them – Torkham in KP and Chaman in Balochistan – allow non-trade travelers to cross.

These travelers, as well as the trade convoys, must possess travel documents. This measure was introduced in 2016 and was also extended to Pashtun tribespeople living in the bordering region. Previously, these Pashtun people living along the border were exempted from visa requirement. This exemption was based on the Easement Rights of the tribes living on both sides of the border and was granted to them in treaties signed by those tribes and the Afghan government with the British colonial rulers of India.

Local observers believe that easement rights were granted to Pashtuns because they were “one people, with a single language and shared history,” and as such, a hard division was not possible.[55] Afghanistan still allows visa-free travel to the residents of former FATA (now merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province), but Pakistani officials say there is no chance of the government issuing “corridor passes” to tribes living near the border on the Afghanistan side anymore.

Pakistan has been issuing long-term multi-entry visas to Afghans traveling to Pakistan, but with the condition that they can stay in Pakistan for only 22 days at a time. According to Pakistani journalist Haroon Rashid, who recently met officials of the Pakistani mission in Kabul, Pakistani authorities claim that ever since Taliban’s takeover the Pakistani Embassy has been issuing roughly 700 visas a day.[56]

Observers assert that the border still remains porous in parts, but the two-way movement of more than two dozen tribes living on both sides of the border has been drastically curtailed. While hardly any reports are available on their plight, a little information that is coming out of the region indicates serious humanitarian issues.

The scale of the likely disturbances can be gauged from a 2016 Dawn report that provided details on the volume of cross-border travel during the previous years across just one crossing point at Torkham.[57] Quoting data from Fata Ana­lysis and Strategy Team (FAST), an intelligence and information collation/analysis wing under the FATA Secretariat’s Law & Order Department, it said, “the (annual) inflow and outflow of undocumented Afghans to and from Pakistan at Torkham never dropped below the one million mark” in the past.[58]

Accordingly, in 2010, a total of 1.7 million undocumented Afghans poured into Pakistan while 2.1 million went back. During 2011-12, the numbers of those crossing into Pakistan shot up to 3.57 million and 3.58 million respectively, while an almost equal numbers of refugees went back. In 2013, the inflow went down to 2.3 million while returns went up to 3.6 million. This trend continued over subsequent years, with numbers fluctuating in tune with seasons and politico-security developments on both sides of the border, until Pakistan enforced its visa regime in early 2016. Following that, the number of undocumented Afghans crossing into Pakistan via Torkham dropped to zero in July that year.[59]

Experts believe that while the open border policy certainly benefited drug smugglers and militants, the bulk of the cross-border movement was by clans and tribes having properties and familial links on both sides, as well as local nomads moving their livestock between their summer and winter pasturelands. Farming, livestock, and cross-border trade have traditionally been the main sources of income for Pashtun border communities. Tribes owned property on both sides of the border. They have now lost access to thousands of hectares of land they owned which fell on the other side of the border.[60]

They have also lost access to communally owned meadows. The Afghan nomads known as Kuchis have borne the brunt of the impact. “The fence has cut off traditional migratory routes that enabled Ghilzai Pashtun tribes to move between the lush plains of the river Indus in Pakistan and the cool Hindukush meadows” in Afghanistan.[61]

Apart from ruining local economies in remote areas, the border control has also had an adverse impact on formal trade which has plummeted over the past four years. Annual Pakistani exports to Afghanistan, which touched the highs of between $1.5 billion to over $2 billion per annum during 2010-14, “dropped more than 40 percent over the past three years, to $889 million, according to the Federal Board of Revenue.”[62] The fencing has also caused some serious humanitarian issues “threatening to break familial ties and social relations in a seamless tribal society united by kinship, religion, language, and history.” Over the last four to five years, thousands of people have been rendered unable to contract marriages within the extended clan or attending funerals of the near and dear ones.[63]

According to some observers, the border fencing has not only stulted lives of Afghan citizens, but also brought the Afghan government under pressure. When Afghanistan was a peaceful monarchy having broader ties with the international community, it would “still crack up as and when Pakistan put restrictions on border crossing.” Given their international isolation and a dysfunctional economy, Afghanistan’s present rulers are even more dependent on Pakistan. “They have no other option to survive except Pakistani support.[64]

As for Pakistan, experts believe that though strict border controls put it in an advantageous position to check militants’ infiltration from Afghanistan, but it cannot block it completely. The border still remains porous in places, which the locals know and have been crossing it both ways in recent times.

Militant attacks by TTP have also continued against Pakistani military targets in the border region, though their frequency has gone down considerably. The reason for this, however, is not necessarily the border controls. With the Taliban in Afghanistan, it doesn’t matter whether the border is open or closed. For Taliban it’s not the issue. They can take people across the border whenever they would want. As for the Islamic State of Khurasan (IS-K), “they may have sleeping cells in Pakistan, but are not much active, which means that Taliban have kept them under control.”[65] Regarding TTP, Pakistan released some of their leaders who were under arrest, and is holding talks with them, even though the Pakistani military is supposedly better placed to crush the movement now that border fencing has blocked their escape routes to Afghanistan.

Pakistan needs to revisit its Afghan policy as well as the approach to deal with the militants and border security. Some assert that while Pakistan has been blaming Afghanistan for not accepting the Durand Line, but the fencing of the border shows that Pakistan too does not accept the border (and its communal realities). Apart from its assumed border security and control utility, few experts hold that the fencing is “alienating Pashtuns … (and causing) trade restrictions that have dismantled the livelihood of Pashtuns.” They also underscore that Pakistan “needs to employ soft power to enhance people to people relations.”[66]


[1] Ashleigh Stewart, “Afghan refugees approved for Canada relocation languish in Pakistan,” Global News, April 12, 2022,

[2] Scott Worden, “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine helps the Taliban and makes Afghans worse off,” United States Institute of Peace, March 16, 2022,

[3] Freedom Network of Pakistan, “Afghan refugees in Pakistan: lives in limbo,” 2022,

[4] Ibid.

[5] Abdul Sayed, a Sweden-based researcher covering Afghanistan. Telephonic conversation with M Ilyas Khan, who conducted fieldwork for this study.

[6] Ibid.

[7] The BBC documentary titled “The Afghans turning to people smugglers to flee their country” can be watched here:

[8] Umida Hashimova, “No place for Afghan refugees in Central Asia,” The Diplomat, November 29, 2021,

[9] UNHCR, “Refugees in Iran,”

[10] Norwegian Refugee Council, “Humanitarian needs in Iran rise as 300,000 Afghans arrive since Taliban takeover,” November 10, 2021,

[11] European Union Agency for Asylum, “Pakistan-Situation of Afghan refugees: Country of origin report,” May 2022,

[12] Ayesha Qaisrani, “Bridging the gaps: Migration management and policy options for Afghan refugees in Pakistan,” Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, December 2021,

[13] For details, please visit:

[14] Farid Kasi and Sahar Habib Ghazi, “This is what it’s like for Afghan refugees crossing the border into Pakistan,” VICE World News, September 17, 2021,

[15] Kellie Ryan, “Crisis in Afghanistan: Unprecedented hunger after the conflict,” International Rescue Committee, January 7, 2022,

[16] Dr Ayesha Siddiqua, defence and strategic analyst. Telephonic conversation with M Ilyas Khan, who conducted fieldwork for this study.

[17] Haroon Rashid, Managing Editor Independent Urdu. Interview by M. Ilyas Khan in Islamabad on June 27, 2022.

[18] Faryal Nazir, “Report on Citizenship Law: Pakistan,” European University Institute, December 2016,

[19] Ayesha Qaisrani, “Bridging the gaps: Migration management and policy options for Afghan refugees in Pakistan,” Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, December 2021,

[20] Rüdiger Schöch, “Afghan refugees in Pakistan during the 1980s: Cold War politics and registration practice,” UNHCR [Asia Pacific], Research Paper No. 157, June 2008.


[21] HRCP, “Afghan refugees in Pakistan: Push comes to shove,” April 2009,

[22] Zulfiqar Ali, “Afghan govt seeks extension in stay of refugees in Pakistan,” Dawn, May 30, 2016.

[23] For details, please visit:

[24] Bakhtawar Mian, “1.4m Afghan refugees begin receiving new smartcards,” Dawn, May 26, 2021.

[25] Amin Ahmed, “Verification of Afghan refugees completed,” Dawn, June 4, 2022.

[26] Visit IOM webpage for the event press release at

[27] Freedom Network of Pakistan, “Afghan refugees in Pakistan: lives in limbo,” 2022,

[28] Please see “DFAT country information report Pakistan” at

[29] Zofeen T. Ebrahim, “In Pakistan, Afghan refugees face hardship and a frosty reception,” Thomas Reuters Foundation, April 19, 2022,

[30] Khudainoor, BBC Pashto service’s Islamabad correspondent. Interview by Ilyas Khan in Islamabad on June 8, 2022.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Rehan Piracha, “Displaced and forgotten Afghans seek basic rights from international community,” VoicePk, June 8, 2022,

[34] Manzoor Ali, “Afghan musicians in Peshawar: between a rock and a hard place,” Dawn, June 6, 2022.

[35] Freedom Network of Pakistan, “Afghan refugees in Pakistan: lives in limbo,” 2022,

[36] Khudainoor, BBC Pashto service’s Islamabad correspondent. Interview by Ilyas Khan in Islamabad on June 8, 2022.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ayesha Qaisrani, “Bridging the gaps: Migration management and policy options for Afghan refugees in Pakistan,” Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, December 2021,

[39] Amira Jadoon, “The evolution of potential resurgence of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan,” USIP Special Report No. 494, May 2021,

[40] Mirza Khurram Shahzad, “Pious claims and encroached lands,” The News on Sunday, August 9, 2015,

[41] “Why do young Afghan refugees in Pakistan lack education, skills?” The Express Tribune, June 19, 2021,

[42] Ayesha Qaisrani, “Bridging the gaps: Migration management and policy options for Afghan refugees in Pakistan,” Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, December 2021,

[43] Ibid.

[44] Freedom Network of Pakistan, “Afghan refugees in Pakistan: lives in limbo,” 2022,

[45] Ibid.

[46] Pak Institute for Peace Studies, “Afghan peace and reconciliation: Pakistan’s interests and policy options,” Report of a PIPS consultation held on March 27, 2022, in Islamabad, which can be downloaded here:

[47] Haroon Rashid, Managing Editor Independent Urdu. Interview by Ilyas Khan in Islamabad on June 27, 2022.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Pak Institute for Peace Studies, “Afghan peace and reconciliation: Pakistan’s interests and policy options,” Report of a PIPS consultation held on March 27, 2022, in Islamabad, which can be downloaded here:

[50] Randeep Ramesh, “US backs Pakistani-Afghan border fence,” The Guardian, September 14, 2005,

[51] “Plan to fence, mine Afghan border,” Dawn, June 23, 2011,

[52] European Union Agency for Asylum, “Pakistan-Situation of Afghan refugees: Country of origin report,” May 2022.

[53] Mansoor Ahmad Khan, Pakistan’s ambassador in Kabul, was quoted in Pamir Sahill, “Divided by Pakistan’s border fence, Pashtuns lose business, rights, and tribal ties,” Gandhara RFERL, May 17, 2021.

[54] Ismail Khan, “Afghan border crossings throw up security concerns,” Dawn, September 2, 2016,

[55] Pamir Sahill, “Divided by Pakistan’s border fence, Pashtuns lose business, rights, and tribal ties,” Gandhara RFERL, May 17, 2021,

[56] Haroon Rashid, Managing Editor Independent Urdu. Interview by Ilyas Khan in Islamabad on June 27, 2022.

[57] Ismail Khan, “Afghan border crossings throw up security concerns,” Dawn, September 2, 2016,

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Pamir Sahill, “Divided by Pakistan’s border fence, Pashtuns lose business, rights, and tribal ties,” Gandhara RFERL, May 17, 2021,

[61] Ibid.

[62] Ibid

[63] Ibid.

[64] Abdul Sayed, a Sweden-based researcher focusing Afghanistan among other things. Email correspondence with Ilyas Khan, who conducted fieldwork for this study.

[65] Haroon Rashid, Managing Editor Independent Urdu. Interview by Ilyas Khan in Islamabad on June 27, 2022.

[66] Comments by Afrasiab Khattak in a PIPS expert consultation held on March 27, 2022 in Islamabad, whose proceedings can be downloaded here: