Pakistan is forcing women and girls back into the clutches of the Taliban

Published in The Globe and Mail, January 27, 2024

Pakistan has faced widespread global condemnation since October for its campaign to expel displaced Afghans. It has compelled vulnerable families, dissidents and others to return to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. On Dec. 13, the caretaker government of Pakistan announced an extension to Feb. 29, from the previous deadline of Nov. 1, for displaced Afghans without a visa to leave. This news came too late for the nearly 400,000 people already forced back to Afghanistan.

It also emerged in late November that Pakistan was charging an “exit fine” of US$830 for undocumented Afghans leaving the country. This sum represents a crippling amount to families who are typically in dire financial straights after months of waiting in Pakistan for third-country resettlement, where they cannot work. Once back in Afghanistan, they find themselves living in a country on the brink of humanitarian collapse, where two-thirds of the population doesn’t know where their next meal will come from, where mothers are feeding nothing but tea to children at risk of death from starvation.

Most critical, however, is the outrage of forcibly returning women and girls to a gender-apartheid state. As a recent op-ed by representatives of Refugees International in Newsweek pointed out, Afghanistan is a place where women and girls face life under systematic persecution due to their gender at best, or detention, torture, sexual violence, forced marriage, or death at worst. Afghanistan is ranked the worst country in the world to be a woman, where the most basic freedoms enabling a viable existence have been lost, including education, travelling aloneworking, getting a haircut, going to the gym, sitting in parks or dressing how one chooses.

At-risk individuals, such as people who collaborated with NATO or its member governments, or who were dissidents, activists, protesters, human-rights defenders, journalists, political progressives, and a host of other categories while the Taliban weren’t in power – even children – are also at risk of torture and detention. This includes people like Parwana Ibrahimkhail Nijrabi, an Afghan women’s rights activist who was violently abused in detention. Other women who were detained faced sexual violence in prison. Still others have been flogged for “moral crimes.”

But perhaps the most tragic indicator of just how grim life is for Afghan women, in particular, is the dramatic rise in suicide rates. At Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, we regularly hear from Afghan women and girls who have lost all hope. They tell us of how, without education, without any hope for a future of their own, or without the ability to provide for their families, they have lost the will to live.

Pakistan itself has argued that it is merely asking Afghans to obtain valid visas and not enter its territory illegally, as other countries expect of any foreign national. However, Afghans are de facto refugees, not people going to Pakistan for a vacation. Obligations toward refugees are different than for other foreign nationals. However, Pakistan has not allowed people displaced from Afghanistan to register as refugees since 2007, and Pakistan is not a party to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees. As millions of Afghans know all too well, becoming a Convention Refugee in Pakistan is next to impossible. This is despite the fact the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has issued non-return advisories in 2021, 2022 and 2023, calling for a ban on the forced return of any Afghan nationals, whether recognized as a refugee or not. Even those who entered Pakistan with valid visas face long delays, demands for bribes and other barriers to getting their visas extended or renewed, with some having been sent back despite having valid visas or other documentation.

International condemnation helped lead to an extension of the deadline for Afghans to leave Pakistan. More pressure could reverse this ill-conceived and politicized decision that has scapegoated innocent people. Even if the decision is not reversed, it is a moral imperative that other countries make clear that there will be consequences for Pakistan’s failure to adhere to international law. On the heels of a swell of good intent and valuable pledges to respect the rights and well-being of refugees made recently at the Global Refugee Forum, we ask that Canada lead in voicing this crucial message. While the world has ample human tragedy to grapple with at the present moment, Pakistan’s cruel expulsion of Afghans is indeed illegal, and as such, the government of Pakistan must be held to account within the international system it is part of.

Of late, the world has let the people of Afghanistan down, with tragic – and predictable – outcomes. There is now a small opportunity to restore safety and hope for a future away from the dystopian reality of life in a gender-apartheid state, for a segment of people who have managed to escape that destiny.

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