Over half a million undocumented Afghans have returned to Afghanistan under coercive conditions since September 2023, straining border resources and exacerbating pre-existing challenges in areas of return. Photo: IOM/Mohammad Osman Azizi

Pakistan –“I managed to sneak inside school today. My teachers said I must not return to class. There is nothing they can do about my situation,” confided Noor, a young Afghan boy living in Balochistan, Pakistan.

At only nine years old, Noor's world turned upside down with the announcement of the Illegal Foreigners’ Repatriation Plan (IFRP) by the Government of Pakistan in October 2023, seeking to “repatriate” Afghans from Pakistan in three phases. 

Under the first phase of the IFRP, over one million foreigners without valid documents, largely Afghans, were given the deadline of 1 November 2023 to leave Pakistan or else face deportation. The second and third phases of the IFRP affect the deportation of Afghan Citizen Cards (ACC) and Proof of Registration (PoR) holders respectively.

As of 20 April 2024, IOM and UNHCR in Pakistan estimate that over 550,000 Afghans have returned to Afghanistan under coercive conditions since the returns scaled up last September. Furthermore, over 31,000 Afghans were reported to have been arrested and detained in Pakistan during the same period.  

Afghan families carry their household belongings back to Afghanistan through the Spin Boldak border crossing in Kandahar. Photo: IOM/Mohammad Osman Azizi

Unlike his six siblings with ACC status, Noor is undocumented which not only casts a shadow over his future in Pakistan but also placed him at immediate risk of deportation during the first phase of the IFRP. Now, with the second IFRP phase approaching, the risk of deportation looms over Noor’s siblings as well.

Following the announcement of the IFRP, Noor encountered mixed reactions at school, with some teachers and classmates upset about his impending departure, while others speculating about when he would be kicked out of school.

Children, like Noor, face serious protection risks in Pakistan, including detention, border crossing dangers, and hardships upon returning to Afghanistan. They are also at risk of family separation, distress, fear, abuse, and exploitation.

As his peers progress academically, Noor’s disrupted education hinders his dreams.

Noor, whose favorite subject is Urdu, the language spoken in his host country, Pakistan, has big ambitions for the future. 

“I want to become a teacher when I grow up. I will open a big school where all boys and girls from all over the world can come and study. This school will be for everyone.”

The repercussions of the plan have also disproportionately affected Afghan women, girls, and female-headed households, exacerbating their vulnerability to gender-based (GBV) and intimate partner violence (IPV) as they are increasingly confined to their homes.

Afghan women attend a GBV awareness raising session held by IOM’s protection partner in Balochistan, Pakistan. Photo: IOM/Muhammad Zeeshan Siddiqui

After decades of conflict, instability and economic crisis, Afghanistan will struggle to absorb the high number of returnees, many of whom have not lived in the country for decades, if ever. With over six million people internally displaced throughout the country, Afghanistan is already grappling with a severe humanitarian crisis and several human rights challenges, especially affecting women and girls.   Pakistan has a decades-long tradition of hosting Afghans in need of protection . 

Habiba, a small restaurant owner in Islamabad and a mother of three, arrived in Pakistan at the age of 12, after being married off to an Afghan man in Pakistan by her parents. When her marriage became abusive, she made the courageous decision to leave him.

Initially holding a PoR card, Habiba later obtained an ACC, unaware that the ACC does not provide access to formal employment and rental agreements, banking services, and limited to no access to healthcare or education. This resulted in Habiba accessing fewer rights and services than when she held a PoR card. Her plight mirrors that of many Afghans in Pakistan, unaware of their legal status and entitlements.

An Afghan mother with her child waits to receive assistance at the IOM transit center in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Photo: IOM/Mohammad Osman Azizi

Between 15 September 2023 and 20 April 2024, out of the 550,000 Afghans reported by UNHCR and IOM Pakistan to have returned to while seven per cent are estimated to be widowed.

Habiba, residing separately from her children and ex-husband, fears for her safety as a single woman. Her situation has significantly worsened since the implementation of the IFRP, as she faces constant police scrutiny at her restaurant and receives anonymous calls demanding her presence at various locations to verify her documentation. Subsequently, she fell victim to robbers who stole most of her valuable possessions as she left her home. 

As she reflected on all that she has gone through, Habiba expressed her deep concern about her future in the country.

Following the de facto authorities’ rise to power in Afghanistan in August 2021, Habiba explains, “Afghans arrived in Pakistan hopeful for a better future, unaware of the challenges ahead,” expressing her concerns for other Afghan women facing similar challenges.

Many Afghan women like Habiba, are now facing severe challenges in accessing basic services, and are subject to harassment by law enforcement agencies, heightening their security concerns.

IOM protection partner briefs female community outreach volunteers in Balochistan, Pakistan, on legal protection services available for Afghans in their community.
Photo: IOM/Muhammad Zeeshan Siddiqui

To address the protection risks faced by ACC holders and undocumented Afghans, which were heightened by the IFRP, IOM Pakistan provides legal aid and advice to displaced Afghans, including court representation for ACC holders, legal camps and awareness raising in Afghan communities. Additionally, IOM Pakistan conducts training for law enforcement agencies, judges, prosecutors, bar associations, and other actors to increase local knowledge and capacities on human rights and relevant national legal frameworks to strengthen the protection environment for Afghans.

In Afghanistan, IOM is leading a border consortium of humanitarian partners who are delivering vital aid to the returnees at border crossing points between Pakistan and Afghanistan, to help meet their basic needs as they face an uncertain future ahead.

IOM and its partners reiterate their call to all countries to immediately halt the forced returns of Afghans, both in the short term and long term, until conditions are established to ensure safe, dignified, and voluntary returns, regardless of their legal status.

This story was written by Maha Akbar, Communications Officer, IOM Pakistan.

SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities
SDG 16 - Peace Justice and Strong Institutions