Since the crackdown began, Afghan refugees are desperate to sell off their assets and leave the country — only to find that their Pakistani ‘friends’ will take full advantage of their vulnerabilities.
Habib Ullah, now 40, spent the better part of his life building a business in Pakistan. For the past several years, he ran a vegetable shop in Peshawar, which not only provided sustenance for his wife and 13 children, but also allowed him to save some money for difficult times.
His savings didn’t help though, given the circumstances he now finds himself in.
“Due to the circumstances, I had no choice but to sell all my possessions at significantly reduced prices. Many people had also taken a loan from me but I was unable to get back what they owed, resulting in another loss of around Rs300,000.”
Officially, the Government of Pakistan has only allowed each family to take Rs50,000 with them across the border. With this meagre amount, Habib Ullah says he’s really at a loss on how he is expected to restart his life in a strange land where he has nothing. He wishes the Afghans, who are being forced to leave Pakistan, were permitted to keep their earned goods which they have acquired through hard labour over a lifetime.
On October 3, the Government of Pakistan said that an estimated 1.7 million undocumented refugees, the vast majority of them Afghans, were living in different parts of the country. It then ordered everyone who did not have documentation to leave the country or risk being forcibly evicted. These unregistered migrants are often referred to as ‘aliens’, who have no form of identification, including either a POR (Proof of Residency) card or an ACC (Afghan Citizen Card).
The POR cards were introduced in collaboration with the UNHCR and were issued to over 2.15 million Afghan refugees between 2006 and 2007. These cards were valid for two years, after which they would have to be renewed every two years. In 2017, the Government of Pakistan, in collaboration with the Afghan government, introduced the ACCs, which were to be issued to those who could not obtain the PoR cards for some reason. In January 2022, the UNHCR estimated the number of ACC holders to be around around 840,000.
The purpose of both these cards was to officially recognise the holders as refugees and grant them partial rights in Pakistan’s healthcare and economic sectors.
Realistically speaking, these documents are a mere formality. In 2022, an analysis of the Afghan refugees’ market systems found that the POR and ACC cardholders could not legally work. Although POR cardholders could open a bank account, the said account would need to be renewed every two years. Moreover, the holders of these cards were not able to open or operate a business in their own name.
Even worse off were the undocumented Afghan nationals, who did not have the facility to open bank accounts, launch businesses, or find work in the formal sector of the economy. Hence, they would opt for informal or undocumented labour to sustain themselves, working doubly hard at menial jobs to make ends meet.
With the October 31 deadline having expired, hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees like Habib Ullah find themselves in a dilemma. Do they give up their entire life’s work and go back to a country they know nothing about? Or do they risk being deported to that same country?
With law enforcement agencies rounding up Afghan nationals and transporting them across the border, over 250,000 Afghan refugees have been repatriated or deported from across the country. But this begs the question: who benefits from the businesses and assets they leave behind?
Business of the undocumented
From the outset, undocumented Afghan nationals could not run a business or make any monetary transactions via formal banking channels. In such cases, they would hire or solicit the help of Pakistani ‘front men’ or a person of trust. The business, hence, would be registered in the front man’s name and the same would be used for any banking transactions or documentation to purchase land or any other assets.
“Most Afghan refugees who cross the border into Pakistan belong to the lower middle class”, so they do not possess any qualifications or even a tertiary level education, explained Sadiq Ullah Kakar, the legal adviser for the Afghan consulate in Karachi.
What they bring are generational skills, incorporating them into the informal sectors of Pakistan’s economy. This, however, puts them at risk of exploitation through delayed/ low wages or being forced to work in unsafe conditions.
A 2019 study by the Asia Displacement Solutions Platform (ADSP), a joint initiative of the Danish Refugee Council, International Rescue Committee, and the Norwegian Refugee Council, found that the majority of Afghan refugees work in the ‘informal sector of the undocumented economy’. This includes the transport sector, tandoor shops, garbage collection, picking scraps to be sold or as daily wage labourers at construction sites. In recent years, some enterprising Afghan nationals also became involved in the cattle/dairy industry, bringing cattle from remote areas to be sold in city centres and even working as butchers on Eid.
Sharbat Khan, who has lived in Punjab’s Chakwal district for almost four decades, expressed disappointment with the government’s decision to prevent the refugees from taking their cattle to Afghanistan. “First, the government forces us to leave our home, where we lived for the past 40 years, and now they forbid us from taking our cattle,” he lamented.
The move is especially difficult for those like him, who rely on cattle farming as their primary source of income. According to Sharbat, while living in Pakistan, he was involved in the sale of dairy products and made considerable investments in cattle. The new mandate has, however, compelled him to sell his livestock at a significant loss — each head of cattle that used to sell for Rs400,000 is now selling for Rs100,000. “The cattle were our entire source of income, so losing them was like losing a family member,” he sighed.
According to Abbas Khan, the Chief Commissioner for Afghan Refugees, the government’s policy towards illegal migrants is very clear: individuals found residing illegally in the country must be repatriated to their home countries. Moreover, he said, people who are undocumented and have invested in property or businesses in Pakistan do not have legal cover for the assets because their presence in the country is unlawful, making their property and business activities illegal too.
Exploitation of refugees
Alamzeb, a 52-year-old who has lived in Quetta for 30 years and owns a shoe business, bemoaned the difficulties he is facing. Over the last month, he has sold most of his inventory, worth Rs1.5 million for almost half the price.
“We never harmed anyone and have worked hard to make a living. However, the persistent pressure from the police has pushed us to leave our home by tomorrow. Initially, they would seek sums in bribe ranging from Rs8,000 to Rs10,000, but now even that won’t do.”
The decision is especially tough for Alamzeb, however, who says that on the one hand, the police regularly come knocking on his door to harass his family, while on the other, he sees no future for his family in Afghanistan. For now, he says, he may purchase a tent or seek assistance from relatives in Afghanistan, but they do not expect any help from the Afghanistan government.
“We are stepping into the night, shrouded in darkness, with little idea of what lies ahead,” he said miserably.
Over the years, Pakistan has hosted over 3.7 million refugees — only 1.4m of whom were formally registered — with the first major influx following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1978, and a relatively smaller one following the fall of Kabul in 2021. Over the years, authorities estimate that hundreds of thousands of undocumented refugees have settled in the country and set up elaborate businesses.
After the government decided to expel the refugees, those who had any stakes in Pakistan hurried to sell off their assets. Hafeezullah, the owner of a restaurant in Afghan Basti had bought his restaurant for Rs3 million some years ago. He says he is ready to sell it off for as little as Rs1m but can’t find a buyer — they all want him to lower the asking price further.
Mohammad Asif, who lived in Machar Colony, sold his shop for Rs0.3m — he had bought it for double the amount. When asked why he didn’t want a better offer, he sighed: “it was sheer helplessness”. Asif needs to leave the country urgently as he fears being arrested by the police.
Often, as a last resort, Afghans are selling their businesses and properties to their trusted ‘frontmen’ at lower rates. The pattern was evident in our conversations with several Afghan refugees, who narrated stories of relatives or acquaintances selling off their assets at throwaway prices in their hurry to leave the country before they were forcibly evicted.
The iconic Al-Asif Square, a block of apartments located off the Karachi-Hyderabad motorway, has been for years dominated by Afghans, earning it the pseudonym ‘mini-Kabul’. The area is dotted with shops and restaurants selling Afghan delicacies and traditional clothing, besides other wares.
Since the crackdown, however, many of the shops have been shut and the Pakistani locals, including the ‘front men’ who helped the Afghans document their properties, are brutally extorting them, says Asif. His own paternal cousin bought a plot in the area for Rs5.2m some years ago, but had to sell it off for Rs1.6m.
Then there are other Afghan strongholds such as Sohrab Goth and Machar Colony, where properties are being bought off from their residents at throwaway prices.
But their troubles don’t end here.
Amarnath left Pakistan through the Chaman border with his family of six. But he cursed the transporters’ wickedness for inflating their service charges. It cost him Rs120,000 to transport his family from Karachi to Quetta — a trip that would normally cost less than half the amount.
With the vast majority of Afghan refugees unable to operate a bank account, they would save up whatever they could in cash. If they ran a business, many of their clientele would expect them to extend a line of credit — again, all of these transactions would happen through verbal agreements based on mutual trust.
Now, as they prepare to leave, they have been faced with the uphill task of getting their dues back. Bashar Khan, an undocumented Afghan refugee has a total of Rs5.2m owed to him. His clients from across the country are simply not paying up.
“They are not refusing to pay, but delaying the process by saying, ‘I’ll give you later laala’,” said Khan. Since the deadline for him to leave has officially expired, if he threatens his debtors they may report him to the police who will throw him in the holding cell and ultimately deport him.
Many others like Bashar Khan are being wronged by their debtors who are Pakistanis and are aware of their situation. “I have come across cases where if an Afghan has loaned Rs4m to a Pakistani, out of helplessness he can only ask for half of the amount back,” said Kakar, the legal expert.
Ironically, the same applies to documented refugees too. Abdul Dawood, a documented Afghan refugee approached Kakar for his legal help since three different people owe him a cumulative sum of Rs30m. They refused to pay him back, emboldened by the vulnerable situation of Afghan refugees under the current crackdown.
After Kakar briefs the legal procedure to him, Dawood realises that a civil case takes between one to two years in court — a timeline he cannot afford. Dawood is also in a weaker position, since he believes they can frame him by bribing the police who will readily arrest him for being an Afghan refugee, documented or not. So he is ready to accept whatever they will give him — but they want to give nothing at all.
Header image: An Afghan man sits with chickens and belongings on a truck as he heads back to Afghanistan via the Chaman Border Crossing in Balochistan. — Photo: Reuters