‘What’s wrong?’: The silence of Pakistanis on expulsion of Afghan refugees

As nearly 1.7 million Afghans are ordered to leave, there is palpable silence on the streets of Pakistan over the government’s move.

Afghan refugees settle in a camp near the Torkham Pakistan-Afghanistan border in Torkham, Afghanistan, Saturday.
Afghan refugees at a camp in Torkham, Afghanistan after Pakistan expelled them [File: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP]

Islamabad, Pakistan – They were a common sight across major Pakistani cities, performing low-paying wage work – loading goods at markets, pushing carts on streets to sell fruits and vegetables, or picking trash.

But since the beginning of the month, those Afghans have been missing from public view after the Pakistan government ordered a crackdown on undocumented refugees and migrants, nearly 1.7 million of them from the neighbouring country.

Air conditioner technician Raza Ali, who works in a major electronics market in Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city in the eastern Punjab province, told Al Jazeera he was “not friends with them, but they were always around”.

“But since the government started its crackdown, they just vanished. It could be good for us because now our people can do their jobs,” the 31-year-old told Al Jazeera.

“Look, they were not from here. If the government is sending them back to their own country, what is wrong with that? I think this is the right decision. Besides, I did not know them. It does not make any difference to my life,” he added nonchalantly.

Ali’s sentiments perhaps explain the muted response of common Pakistanis to the expulsion of the Afghan refugees, many of whom were born in Pakistan and had never seen Afghanistan.

The Afghan migration to Pakistan began in the late 1970s after the Soviets invaded their country. Then, the Afghans came in more waves after the United States attacked Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the more recent Taliban takeover of Kabul in 2021.

The Pakistani government, whose expulsion campaign began on November 1, says 1.7 million of nearly 4 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan were undocumented. Islamabad blames the refugees for a recent spike in attacks by armed groups, most of them carried out by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also known as Pakistani Taliban because of its ideological affinity with the Afghan Taliban.

Pakistan’s caretaker Interior Minister Sarfraz Bugti, the top government official supervising the expulsion drive, last month alleged that 14 out of 24 suicide bombings in the country this year were carried out by Afghan nationals.

Last week, he told the parliament more than 300,000 Afghans left the country this month, despite criticism from the United Nations and rights groups over forcibly driving the refugees and migrants away.

But there is no visible outrage over the move within Pakistan – a silence being contrasted by their anger over Israel’s forced displacement – and what many experts call a genocide – of Palestinian civilians in Gaza.

‘Great deal of racism’

Gallup Pakistan, in a survey conducted in the first week of November, found that 84 percent of respondents “strongly approved” the government’s move to expel the “illegal” refugees and migrants, mainly from Afghanistan.

Moreover, an overwhelming 64 percent of the respondents said the repatriation of the Afghans would lead to improved security and peace in Pakistan.

Afghan refugees settle in a camp near the Torkham Pakistan-Afghanistan border in Torkham, Afghanistan, Saturday.
Afghan children at a camp near the Torkham border in Afghanistan [File: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP]

Muhammed Rehan, a bookshop owner in Karachi, the country’s largest city and a refuge for tens of thousands of Afghans, said while the government decision may have been guided by the “frustration” over its inability to control the increasing violence, he agreed with the reasoning of their expulsion.

“The decision to repatriate undocumented people is the correct one. There are a lot of criminal elements among them, and police must take care that they only arrest those who are without papers or those who have committed any crime,” he told Al Jazeera.

Similarly, Adil Musa, a real estate dealer in the capital Islamabad, also endorsed the government’s decision, saying it will help the law and order situation.

“These Afghan families also impacted the rental market in Islamabad, making it difficult for the locals to acquire property,” he told Al Jazeera.

But Pakistani sociologist Nida Kirmani believes there is a “great deal of racism” against the Afghans in Pakistan, which she says is due to years of “state-sponsored brainwashing” that framed the Afghans as enemies.

Kirmani, associate professor of sociology at Lahore University of Management Science, told Al Jazeera the Pakistani state portrays the Afghans as “terrorists”, even when the state apparatus itself was central to the growth of groups such as the Taliban in Afghanistan.

“Many people here have bought into these narratives. Plus, at times of economic insecurity and upheaval, we often see a rise in xenophobic discourses and movements. The current scenario is part of this general trend, and Afghans become easy scapegoats,” she said.

Karachi-based lawyer Sara Malkani claims there was “some resistance” by the civil society groups to the government’s decision. One reason for the muted public outrage, she said, could be because of the fears of state suppressing mass anti-government protests.

“There is public sympathy in some quarters, and there are activists who are trying to demand the government should bring more transparency in the [expulsion] processes, but there is a need to educate people on why Afghans chose to escape Afghanistan and what role did the Pakistani state play in perpetuating the conditions in Afghanistan,” she told Al Jazeera.

Malkani said it is important to change the public perception within Pakistan about the Afghans, who are going back to a country impoverished by decades of conflict and which is now facing a political and humanitarian crisis.

“Under the current Taliban government, we are already seeing widespread gender apartheid, with girls denied the right to education and women denied the right to employment and mobility. It is unconscionable to forcibly deport them [to face these problems],” she said.

Source: Al Jazeera