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The Telegraph
The Telegraph
18 Nov 2023


Desperate Afghan refugees forced to bribe police to avoid deportation from Pakistan

When Pakistani police rapped on the door of Shahid’s small rental home in Islamabad, he was having lunch with his pregnant wife and three children.

Before he could get up to answer, seven police officers barged into the room.

Shahid knew why they had come: the 35-year-old former Afghan government official’s wife and daughters are among 1.3 million Afghan refugees who had been ordered to leave the country by October 31st.

It was only 24 hours later when his home was raided.

“I was shocked, but my kids were terrified and huddled close to my wife. They were trembling, shivering… when I looked at my own hands, they were shaking too.

“I wanted to be strong but I couldn’t. All I could think of what would happen to my children if we got detained,” he told The Telegraph.

While Shahid has secured a visa to stay in Pakistan, they have not and as such face deportation.

In order to send the police away - for now - he agreed to pay a bribe of 10,000 Pakistani rupees (£30).

Pakistani police officials conduct a search operation for undocumented immigrants
Police officials conduct a search operation for undocumented immigrants Credit: SHAHZAIB AKBER/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Around 350,000 people have already crossed back into Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, despite the fact that many of that number fled their persecution after the collapse of the Western-backed government in August 2021.

The torrent of immigrants has overwhelmed both Taliban border officials and humanitarian agencies.

Around 10,000 are returning every day, said Maisam Shafiey, communications and advocacy adviser at the Norwegian Refugee Council in Afghanistan. Before Pakistan ordered the expulsion, the number was less than 260.

For families that choose to take their chances and stay in Pakistan, like Shahid’s, there are other risks. Staying out of the clutches of Pakistani authorities is an expensive business.

He has been detained twice by police in the past year despite having proper legal documents. 

“Each of the times, they kept me in custody with 50 to 60 other Afghans who had been rounded up. They took our phones and belongings, and we were released after we paid a bribe of Rs 20,000,” he said.

The deadline set by Pakistan's government for undocumented immigrants and refugees to leave the country voluntarily expired on Nov 1
The deadline set by Pakistan's government for undocumented immigrants and refugees to leave the country voluntarily expired on Nov 1 Credit: SHAHZAIB AKBER/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

When Shahid fled Afghanistan he sold his house and car. Unable to find a job since he has survived as far as possible on those savings.

But frequent bribes have sunk him deep into debt. “But what other option do I have? If we are detained, I will be separated from my pregnant wife and children. How can I protect them if we are sent back?” he asked.

Human Rights Watch’s Afghanistan researcher, Fereshta Abbasi, says that abuse of refugees  “has drastically increased in Pakistan” since the announcement of the cancellation of Afghans’ right to stay in Pakistan.

Ever since the Soviet invasion in 1979, hundreds of thousands of Afghans have eked out a living on the margins of society, with most clustering in the cities of Karachi, Islamabad and Peshawar. Their situation has always been precarious: without full citizenship, children are not allowed to enter the Pakistani school system. Typically, Pakistani governments offer short extensions to the Afghan refugees’ right to remain - always wielding the threat of expulsion over their heads.

This government, an interim set-up brought in ahead of an election delayed until early next year, went ahead and cut the cord.

It is widely seen as a move orchestrated by Pakistan’s powerful army, which dominates politics and has been involved in increasingly tense clashes with the Taliban on its border.

Afghan women and their children on a truck to Jalalabad from a makeshift camp near the Afghanistan-Pakistan Torkham border
Afghan women and their children on a truck to Jalalabad from a makeshift camp near the Afghanistan-Pakistan Torkham border Credit: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

The threat of deportation has caused panic within the Afghan community in Pakistan.

“They [the Taliban] have threatened to kill me; they’ve already killed my friend. They call me a slave of the foreigners,” Shahid said, sharing threats sent to him by the Islamist group.

After the Taliban takeover, he remained in hiding for months, frequently changing locations to avoid arrest. “But when the door-to-door searches started in our neighbourhood, we had to escape. We left the country on foot with just the clothes on our backs. I will be detained the moment I step foot in Afghanistan,” he said.

Shahid has pending asylum cases with the US and European embassies in Pakistan - but he has been waiting for more than two years to hear from the governments who were once close allies.

Since the raid on his home, he has been forced into hiding again. “We don’t leave the house at all, and have locked ourselves indoors.”

“There are police checkpoints everywhere, and even getting groceries is a daunting task that needs planning.”

A young boy by his family's belongings in a makeshift camp in Ghazni
A young boy by his family's belongings in a makeshift camp in Ghazni Credit: MOHAMMAD FAISAL NAWEED/AFP via Getty Images

At only five years old, Shahid’s youngest child had already seen a world of trauma. Fleeing the Taliban, he had crossed the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan on foot. “It was so chaotic,” Shahid recalled, “Just as the gates were about to close for the day, I asked my family to run across… It was our only chance. And my youngest ran as fast as little legs could carry him,” he shared, choking back tears.

“He was running for his life, full of fear that if he slows down, he will be left behind and caught by the Taliban. He deserves a better childhood,” Shahid said.

Closing the interview, he begged The Telegraph to help him secure that future.

“My daughter is a very smart girl, but she won’t be successful if she is sent back to Afghanistan or Pakistan. I will go back and surrender myself to the Taliban and let them kill me. Just take them to a safe country,” he said.