eena Wafa has finally obtained a visa that says she can stay in Pakistan up to three months, but she is still fraught with worry that she may be deported back to her home country even before that period is up. While Pakistan says that its ongoing deportation campaign covers only foreign nationals – particularly Afghans – who are in the country illegally, there have been reports that even those with proper documents are being rounded up and forced to leave.
“I can’t sleep because of fear of being deported,” says Wafa. “In Afghanistan, I have already gotten death threats from unknown persons. Returning to Afghanistan is like entering the well of death.”
Wafa’s worries are not without basis. For one, she was a popular singer in Afghanistan, where the ruling Taliban now claim that music is forbidden under Islam. For another, being a woman means that like the rest of the female population in Afghanistan, she will be stripped of her rights, such as being able to go out unaccompanied or to work for NGOs and the United Nations, and run businesses.
The possibility that they may be forced to return to Afghanistan and endure such conditions — and worse — is now putting many female Afghan refugees in Pakistan in distress.
In a statement released in early December, a group of U.N. experts noted that Pakistan’s Illegal Foreign Repatriation Plan (IFRP) “does not include provisions for individual assessment of irreparable harm and risks that may be faced by Afghan nationals, who are forced to return to Afghanistan.” The experts said that among those at high risk were women and girls who may be “subjected to child and forced marriage, trafficking in persons, and denial of the rights to education, to work, and to freedom of movement and equal protection of the law.”
In fact, in most cases, these have been precisely the reasons why Afghan women and girls have been fleeing their country. That they choose to stay in Pakistan, where the conditions they are often subjected to are far from ideal, also speaks volumes of how their lives had been far worse in Afghanistan.
Spezale Zazai, a rights advocate in Afghanistan, says that the decision to seek refuge in Pakistan was not easy. Her family’s primary breadwinner, the mother of four girls says, “I have faced numerous obstacles in migrating to Pakistan.” But she adds, “although challenges continue, my greatest satisfaction stems from my daughters’ access to education and opportunities for work.”
A distinct wave
Abbas Khan, Pakistan’s Chief Commissioner for Afghan Refugees, observes that the wave of Afghan refugees that arrived in Pakistan after August 2021 was entirely different from previous ones. Although Afghans have been seeking refuge in Pakistan in waves since the 1970s, they came from both rural and urban areas and were a mix of social classes. The more recent Afghan arrivals, says Khan, are mostly urban professionals.
According to the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) of the 450,000 or so of these post-August 2021 arrivals in Pakistan who sought to be registered with it, 46 percent were female.
“Afghan patients, especially women seeking counseling, vary from Pakistani patients,” says psychiatrist Mian Iftikhar, who is based in Peshawar, in Pakistan’s northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
“Women who were independent, getting an education, and enjoying fundamental human rights prior to the Taliban takeover suffered greatly when these rights were suddenly taken,” he says. “In these situations, individuals become the focus of depression, remembering horrific events, having trouble in sleeping, and even having thoughts of suicide.”
Iftikhar’s observations mirror those of a June 2023 report on Afghan women by U.N. Women, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). The report, which was based on months-long consultations with women across Afghanistan, says “feelings of anxiety, isolation, and depression were more likely to have grown significantly worse for urban women (62 percent) than rural women (49 percent).
“Urban women were also more likely to think the situation for women and girls will continue to deteriorate (59 percent compared to 43 percent of rural women),” it says. “This points to urban women feeling a greater loss of opportunities and freedoms compared to rural women. Due to customs and norms in rural areas, the latter may have become accustomed to fewer opportunities and more restrictive gender norms even before the (2021) Taliban takeover.”
Nevertheless, the report adds, “Afghan women depict a mental health crisis with no end in sight.” It further points out that more than two-thirds of Afghan women reported “not feeling physically safe” while some 90 percent “stated that their mental health, in terms of feelings of anxiety, isolation, and depression, was ‘very bad’ or ‘bad.’”
Fear upon fear
The current threat of expulsion may be worsening similar emotions among Afghan female refugees in Pakistan. Zazai, for instance, has been in a constant state of anxiety since authorities announced that the IFRP would officially begin on Nov. 1. Zazai has a UNHCR Proof of Registration card, but she has apparently heard of stories where Pakistani authorities would simply tear these up and detain the cardholders and ready them for deportation.
Says Zazai: “We have no future in Afghanistan, and especially for women like me who lack external support.”
Even Afghanistan-based relatives of the women refugees are beside themselves with worry over the deportation threat. Farakhnaz Akozai, who worked as a journalist in Afghanistan before heading to Pakistan following the Taliban’s 2021 return to power, says that her father “continually tells me not to leave the house” because he fears she will be arrested. Akozai has a visa, but it is about to expire. She confesses that she is worried as well that she may end up expelled.
“My family in Afghanistan is very anxious about my safety,” Akozai says. “I live alone, with no relatives nearby to offer support or distraction. My parents are mentally tortured…. They think about me all hours of the day and night.”
Like Wafa and Zazai, Akozai’s profession is another mark against her in the Taliban’s eyes, aside from her gender.
UNHCR Spokesperson Qaisar Afridi says that the agency and its humanitarian partners have urged Pakistan to continue protecting all vulnerable Afghans who have sought refuge in the South Asian country and who may face imminent danger if forced to return. He also says that UNHCR deeply empathizes with those who, having sought safety in Pakistan, are now overwhelmed by anxiety, and understands the difficulties that families are facing.
But these words are cold comfort to Afghan refugees who are being forced to leave Pakistan. Between Nov. 1 and 15 alone, some 327,000 Afghan refugees crossed the border back to their home country. Whether or not they did so on their own volition is unclear; according to UN Women, though, 47 percent of these returnees were women and girls.
Observers say that the Afghan refugees are merely political pawns in Pakistan’s struggle to contain — if not stop — attacks by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which Pakistan authorities believe are backed by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Pakistan also believes that those who have carried out the recent attacks are illegal Afghan migrants, hence the aggressive deportation push.
The Taliban in Afghanistan have denied any involvement in the TTP attacks. Lawyer Muniza Kakar meanwhile has raised concern over the Pakistani caretaker government’s action, which she says falls beyond its jurisdiction. The rights advocate asserts, “This decision doesn’t come under the caretaker government. The decision should be made by the elected representatives. The present judgment is fundamentally unconstitutional.”
She adds: “Plenty of politicians, including Senator Mushtaq (Ahmad Khan), Afrasiab Khattak, Faratullah Babar, Mohsin Dawar, and others, are not only against this deportation but are also petitioners against it.
“Beyond politicians — numerous activists, policymakers, and professors share opposition to the deportation. Most locals oppose this deportation, but the problem is with how it is being portrayed in the local media. Aurat March (a women’s rights group) organized anti-deportation demonstrations in several Pakistani cities where feminists and women’s organizations took part.”
Khan, for his part, says that rules will be relaxed for “vulnerable and genuine cases” who are in Pakistan to seek asylum in a third country. In Islamabad, he continues, a committee has already been formed, comprising the police department, the Commissionerate for Afghan Refugees, and the Afghanistan Embassy to address complaints and ensure a proper process for the deportation of Afghan citizens.
A body that includes Afghan diplomats that would look after their welfare may not exactly sound reassuring to Afghan refugees. It may even add to their anxiety. Hence it’s a good thing that Wafa seems unaware of it. The singer who once entertained crowds of people now spends her days alone in her room, fearful of venturing out. She used to live with her brother and his wife in Rawalpindi, a city adjacent to Islamabad, but they went their separate ways when their landlord issued an eviction notice following the announcement of the IFRP. Unable to work, Wafa receives support from relatives in Pakistan.
“I’m in a condition of uncertainty, anxious about what to do next,” she says. “I hope no one else has to go through such hardships in their lives.” ◉