UN agency urges Pakistan to halt expelling Afghans during winter

By Asif Shahzad

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - The U.N. refugee agency on Wednesday urged Pakistan to halt deportation of undocumented Afghan refugees during the harsh winter season, as police continued to search homes and expel Afghanis who had not already left.

Islamabad last month announced it would expel over a million undocumented refugees, mostly Afghans, amid a row with Kabul over charges that it harbours anti-Pakistan militants.

Over 370,000 Afghans have fled Pakistan since Oct. 1.

"UNHCR is calling upon the government of Pakistan to halt these mass numbers of returns during this harsh season of winter because the cold in Afghanistan is really deadly and it can take lives," the agency's regional spokesman, Babar Baloch, told Reuters TV in an interview.

"We're talking about desperate women, children and men being on the move, leaving Pakistan in droves," he said.

The agency has said the Afghans' return should be voluntary and that Pakistan should identify vulnerable individuals who need international protection.

Pakistan is home to over 4 million Afghan migrants and refugees, about 1.7 million of whom are undocumented. Many came after the Taliban retook Afghanistan in 2021, and a large number have been present since the 1979 Soviet invasion.

Pakistani police have been searching door to door in refugees settlements for those who have not left voluntarily, beginning with the port city of Karachi, where hundreds of thousands of Afghans live. Anyone remaining may be forcefully expelled.

Thousands of Afghans have gone underground in Pakistan to avoid deportation, fearing for their lives if they return to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan following the hasty and chaotic withdrawal of U.S.-led western forces in 2021.

Islamabad has thus far not entertained calls by international organizations and refugee agencies to reconsider its deportation plans.

Pakistan's Supreme Court has admitted a petition filed by rights activists seeking to halt the deportation, which is yet to be taken up for a hearing, a court order issued on Wednesday said.

(Reporting by Asif Shahzad; Editing by Bernadette Baum)