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Most undocumented people in Pakistan are Afghan. They're being forced to leave

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

There's a crackdown underway in Pakistan. Authorities there are going door to door looking for foreigners - mostly Afghans who are living there illegally - to deport them. NPR's Arezou Rezvani reports on what's behind this mass expulsion.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK HORN BEEPING)

AREZOU REZVANI, BYLINE: For the last several days, truckloads of Afghans have been pouring in across the border from Pakistan.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK ENGINE IDLING)

REZVANI: Thousands of Afghans are dropped off at camps where they unload a few modest belongings inside tents set up by the Taliban government. Their lives turned upside down when Pakistan suddenly announced last month that all illegal migrants had to leave the country by November 1. In Pakistan, most undocumented people are Afghan, and so far, less than 10% of that 1.7 million undocumented population have returned, according to the Taliban government. Some are still making their way back, but others, like 27-year-old Sahar, are desperately trying to stay.

SAHAR: I'm an Afghan. I proudly say this, but I cannot go there because if we go back to Afghanistan, we cannot study, we cannot work. So what should we do in Afghanistan?

REZVANI: Sahar, who gives only her first name since she's already on the radar of Pakistani police, fled Afghanistan a year ago. She left with her mother, three younger sisters and kid brother, as life grew harder for women and girls who are barred from continuing their education and working most jobs. Under a short-term visa that recently expired, her family settled into a new life in Islamabad. But a recent visit by the police has her worried that their time in Pakistan may soon be up.

SAHAR: It was about 7:30 or 8 p.m. They knocked our door by force. They were about 15 to 20 people. And when we showed our visa, they say that no, your visa is expired. You need to go back to your own country.

REZVANI: Pakistani authorities say these expulsions are about strengthening the country's national security. But Ayesha Siddiqa, a senior fellow at King's College London, says the timing of this policy is meant to send a message.

AYESHA SIDDIQA: It's a signaling to the Afghan leadership. If you're not going to help me solve the TTP, the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan problem, then I'm sorry, I'm not going to take responsibility for all these Afghan citizens who are refugees here.

REZVANI: The TTP is a Pakistani offshoot of the Taliban. The group has stepped up its attacks, mostly in Pakistan's border areas, since the Taliban returned to power in 2021. So this mass expulsion is Islamabad's way of putting pressure on the Taliban to rein in the TTP, experts say. Now, the Taliban insists the group's activities are unrelated to the Afghan government. But Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center in Washington says history suggests otherwise.

MICHAEL KUGELMAN: There's been a constant pattern throughout the history of the Taliban in Afghanistan where they just simply do not turn on their allies.

REZVANI: And that is why Kugelman cautions that Pakistan's pressure campaign could very well backfire.

KUGELMAN: The Taliban is indeed a group that does not respond well to pressure, and it could feel compelled to become even more resistant and perhaps even be willing to try to empower the TTP even more, encourage them to try to carry out more attacks in Pakistan.

REZVANI: All of this leaves ordinary Afghans like Sahar tangled up in escalating tensions between the two countries. And they're worried about what the fallout could mean for their lives.

SAHAR: Sometimes some of our relatives, when they call us from Afghanistan, they say that please, in any situation, please don't think to come back to Afghanistan because this is not a place for anyone to live here. But for those families who have females, like us, they cannot survive in Afghanistan.

REZVANI: The Taliban forced Sahar to leave her home in Afghanistan. Its offshoot in Pakistan may be the reason she's soon sent back.

Arezou Rezvani, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "REFUGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Arezou Rezvani is a senior editor for NPR's Morning Edition and founding editor of Up First, NPR's daily news podcast.
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