The Afghan refugees who fled to Pakistan when the Taliban took over in August now face an uncertain future as government officials say they cannot take anymore refugees. The process of deportations has already begun, with at least 250 refugees being sent home after their arrival in Balochistan, Pakistan.
The official narrative is that Pakistan already hosts nearly 4 million refugees. “We cannot cope with more burden, we cannot carry it, why should more new people come? There are other neighbouring countries, they can go there,” says Liaquat Shahwani, a spokesman for the provincial government in Balochistan, where most new Afghan refugees have arrived.
Another provincial official told newsmen that at least 250 new Afghan refugees had been deported since the fresh arrival of people began following the fall of the Afghan government on August 15.
“We have returned them because the Pakistan government has not at this time made any camps to facilitate Afghan refugees,” said Shahwani while talking to Al Jazeera. “Our decision is that we will not allow them right now.”
Hazara refugees are particularly vulnerable. The idea of living under a Taliban regime, which is accused of carrying out atrocities against Hazaras in the 1990s, is terrifying for them. In their earlier stint in power, the Taliban targeted members of the Hazara ethnicity who are mostly Shia Muslims, in a series of massacres and bombings.
In August, human rights organisation Amnesty International said Taliban fighters had killed nine Hazara men after taking control of Ghazni province in July. The ISIL (ISIS) armed group has also targeted ethnic Hazaras in Afghanistan in major bombings in recent years.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that more than 9,290 new refugees have arrived in Pakistan since the fall of Kabul in August. Most of them crossed through the southern border crossing Spin Boldak and Chaman.
“I left my home and came here,” says one refugee. “My appeal to the authorities is that they must help us. We are living in a mosque; we have no clothes, blankets or anything else.”
At least 100 other refugees were staying at the Rizvia mosque in Quetta, Balochistan. Dozens of families are sleeping on carpets in the main prayer hall at the mosque, with a small partition dividing the space between men and women.
For these refugees, the journey to Pakistan was arduous, dangerous and chaotic. Some people lost their family members at the crossing.
One refugee tells newsmen how she lost her brother. “When I was able to get through, my brother was left behind,” she says. “I spent one night in Chaman on the roof of a shop because there was no space and no rooms.”
Pakistan currently hosts more than 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees, according to UNHCR data, with another two million estimated to be living in the country without formal documentation.
These include refugees who have lived in the country for more than 30 years, fleeing first the Soviet invasion, the civil war that followed and then the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan.
Pakistan has facilitated international evacuations from Afghanistan during the crisis, with government officials estimating that at least 13,000 individuals – mostly third-country citizens from the US, Europe and elsewhere – have travelled through Pakistan by air or by road in order to reach safety.
But officials say the country will not accept any new refugees.
“Pakistan is in no condition right now to accept any more refugees,” said Moeed Yusuf, the national security adviser to Prime Minister Imran Khan said last week.
“We will do whatever we can for our Afghan brothers and sisters, but the world has to take this responsibility to ensure that we prevent a humanitarian crisis.”
Yusuf called for the setting up of ‘safe zones’ within Afghanistan for those displaced by the conflict. Officials in Pakistan’s Balochistan province echoed this sentiment, saying that no new refugee camps were being set up in Pakistan.
Most new refugees are aware of the difficulties of living in Pakistan and are seeking resettlement in a third country.
“Refugees cannot be accommodated here because Pakistan already has a lot of immigrants. We are looking for a home, but cannot find one,” says one refugee.
“We are requesting the United Nations to take us to some developed country where we can live peacefully with our children.”