ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's prime minister on Wednesday sought to reassure thousands of Afghans waiting in Pakistan for resettlement in the United States that they won't be deported as part of his government's widely criticized crackdown on undocumented migrants in the country.
Islamabad has launched a crackdown on illegal migration, saying any unregistered foreign national and migrant lacking proper documentation would face arrest and deportation. The drive mostly affects Afghans because they are the majority of foreigners living in Pakistan, although the government says it’s targeting all who are in the country illegally.
At least 25,000 Afghans — who had worked for the American military or government, international organizations and aid agencies, as well as media and human rights groups — escaped the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 2021 to Pakistan and are waiting to be processed to relocate to the U.S.
Pakistani authorities said they have received a list with their names from U.S. officials.
Pakistan has long hosted about 1.7 million Afghans, most of whom fled during the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation. In addition, more than half a million people fled Afghanistan when the Taliban seized power in the final weeks of U.S. and NATO pullout.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Jonathan Lalley said Washington was in close and constant communication with the Pakistani government on the safety of the individuals in the U.S. pipelines.
“Our key concern is the safety of vulnerable and at-risk individuals,” he told The Associated Press on Wednesday, adding that it was “in both our countries’ interest to ensure the safe and efficient resettlement of Afghan refugees and asylum seekers.”
Pakistan's caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar said in a televised news conference Wednesday that authorities would deport only migrants who are in the country illegally.
He stressed that 1.4 million Afghan refugees live in Pakistan with “full respect and safety.” As for the others, he said, “they cannot live in Pakistan for an indefinite period.”
He assured Afghans who have been waiting for more than two years for U.S. officials to process their visa applications that they won't be targeted. But his words are unlikely to bring much comfort to waiting Afghans who have to contend with economic hardships and lack of access to health, education and other services in Pakistan.
Kakar said more than 250,000 Afghans have returned to Afghanistan since the crackdown was announced.
Hours later, Zabihullah Mujahid, the spokesman for the Taliban government said in a statement, “the Islamic Emirate wants peace and stability” in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
He called on the Pakistani government to “solve their own domestic problems and not to blame Afghanistan for their failures,” referring to repeated accusations that militants targeting Pakistan were using Afghan territories to hide.
The Taliban-led government next door has set up a commission to deal with repatriated nationals and has criticized Islamabad's actions. Many Afghans who have gone back lack water, food and shelter once they cross the border, aid groups say,
Pakistan's anti-migrant crackdown came as attacks surged on Pakistani security forces and civilians. Most have been claimed by the Pakistani Taliban, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan or TTP, a separate militant group but a close ally of the Afghan Taliban.
Kakar demanded the Taliban hand over Pakistani militants involved in attacks inside Pakistan and dismantle TTP training centers and hideouts in Afghanistan. He added that he hoped the Taliban would stop the TTP from using Afghan soil to launch attacks on Pakistan.
Since the Taliban takeover, “unfortunately there has been a 60% increase in terrorist attacks and a 500% rise in suicide attacks in Pakistan,” Kakar said, expressing regret over the lack of a “positive response” from the Taliban.
Associated Press writer Rahim Faiez contributed to the story from Islamabad.