More than 165,000 Afghans have fled Pakistan in the month since its government ordered 1.7 million people to leave or face arrest and deportation, officials said Thursday.
The majority rushed to the border in the past several days as the November 1 deadline approached and police began to open up dozens of holding centres to detain arrested Afghans.
Authorities on the Afghan side of the border have been overwhelmed by the scale of the exodus as they attempt to process those returning — some of whom are setting foot in Afghanistan for the first time in their lives.
“We are constantly in contact with them (Pakistani authorities) asking for more time. People must be allowed to return with dignity,” the Taliban government’s refugees minister Khalil Haqqani told.
“They should not give Afghans a hard time, they should not make more enemies,” he said at a temporary processing centre, which opened overnight Wednesday.
Taliban authorities set up the centre several kilometres from a border crossing, as well as camps for families with nowhere to go, after a bottleneck there sparked an “emergency situation” for thousands of stranded people, an official said.
At the largest border crossing at Torkham in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, officials worked into the early hours of Thursday to clear a queue of 28,000 people that stretched for seven kilometres (four miles).
Just over 129,000 have fled from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the provincial home department said, while a total of 38,100 have crossed through Chaman in Balochistan province, border officials there told.
As pressure at the borders eased, officials vowed to keep up their immigration crackdown, detaining hundreds of Afghans, while encouraging undocumented families to continue leaving voluntarily.
More than 100 people were detained in one police operation in the mega city of Karachi on Thursday, while police rounded up 425 Afghans in Quetta, the city closest to the Chaman border crossing.
“I have the card but this morning police raided our home and told us they would verify our IDs. We would rather leave than endure police raids at our homes,” Hameed Khan, a 30-year potter born at a refugee camp in Peshawar, told AFP at a police station in Karachi, where he had settled.
In conservative Afghan culture, it is considered a great dishonour for a man who is not a close relative to enter the home when women are present.
After the country’s interior minister met with the Afghan ambassador in Islamabad on Thursday, Pakistan announced that women and children under the age of 14 leaving voluntarily would be spared body searches and biometric scanning at the border, in line with cultural sensitivities.
Lawyers and rights groups have accused the Pakistani government of using threats, abuse and detention to coerce Afghan asylum seekers to leave while Afghans have reported weeks of arbitrary arrests and extortion.
“The constitution of Pakistan gives every person who is present on this soil the right to a fair trial, but these refugees have been denied that right,” said Moniza Kakar, a Karachi-based human rights lawyer.
Millions of Afghans have poured into Pakistan in recent decades, fleeing a series of violent conflicts, including an estimated 600,000 since the Taliban government seized power in August 2021 and imposed its harsh interpretation of Islamic law.
Pakistan has said the deportations are to protect its “welfare and security” after a sharp rise in attacks, which the government blames on militants operating from Afghanistan.
Analysts say it’s likely a pressure tactic to force the Taliban government to cooperate on security issues.
The Taliban government has called on Pakistani authorities to give Afghan citizens more time to leave with dignity, while denying that refugees are to blame for instability.
The expulsion of undocumented Afghans, however, has widespread support from Pakistanis, analysts say, with a protracted refugee presence putting a heavy burden on the country’s infrastructure.
Human Rights Watch has said Afghans awaiting resettlement to the United States, United Kingdom, Germany and Canada after fleeing the Taliban government are at risk of deportation after their Pakistan visas expired.