When the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan in 2021, the rights and status of women became a focal point of international discourse, as the militant group’s policies have been widely condemned as gender apartheid. From dress codes to school closures, the Taliban wasted no time in placing restrictions on women, prompting millions to flee to neighboring countries like Pakistan.
But what happens when Pakistan seeks to send Afghans back to where they came from?
Since Nov. 1, Pakistani authorities have been conducting door-to-door checks
on migrants’ documentation, following an announcement from Prime Minister Anwar ul Haq Kakar that Islamabad plans to deport over 1 million “illegal aliens” who do not have valid residency documents. Of all the refugees in Pakistan, 95 percent are estimated to be Afghans.
UN Women reported that since Nov. 1, more than 400,000 Afghans have left Pakistan and returned to their home country, about 80 percent of whom are women or children.
Zan Times, a newsroom led by Afghan women, has been reporting on the consequences of women returning to a country where their freedoms are under threat. One Afghan refugee, Yasmin (who isn’t using her full name for security reasons) shared her experience of being arrested by Pakistani officials while she and her family were eating breakfast at home. When she showed them her U.N. card – which shows they are refugees and their case is being processed – she said officials threw the card away and said her visa had expired.
Yasmin contacted several organizations, including UNHCR and the World Association of Defense Lawyers, which helped free her family. But she still needs to pay $6,000 to renew her visa. “We cannot afford to pay such a big amount,” she said.
In addition to this, the Pakistani government announced that anyone who does not voluntarily leave Pakistan after February 2024 will be fined $100 every month.
“We came to Pakistan hoping to start a comfortable life,” she told the publication. “My children should study but now no school accepts them because they are refugees. We are all destitute, depressed and have no hope.”
Zara, another Afghan refugee living in Pakistan, told the Zan Times that her landlord informed her that she would have to move out and find a new place to live. “No one is giving a room to a young, lonely woman,” the 28-year-old said. She fled Afghanistan in late 2021. “Every night, I have nightmares of being arrested and deported to Afghanistan. If I am deported, the Taliban might kill or force me into marriage with one of their fighters.”
The UNHCR reported that over 12,000 Afghan refugees returned in the first nine months of 2023, largely due to the cost of living and lack of employment opportunities in host countries. Still, as the Taliban’s constraints tighten each day, many Afghan refugees – particularly women – are so afraid of returning to their home country that they would rather stay in Pakistan.
Zara said she hasn’t left her room for three weeks for fear of deportation, and has not slept well ever since the February deadline was announced. Meanwhile, Yasmin said her family has not been able to leave the house for months.
“Every moment I fear that we will be caught and sent back to Afghanistan,” Yasmin said.