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Afghan refugees in Pakistan walk towards the Pakistan-Afghanistan Torkham border on Nov. 3, following Pakistan's government decision to expel people illegally staying in the country.ABDUL MAJEED AFP PHOTOGRAPHER/AFP/Getty Images

Afghans in Pakistan who have been waiting years to be resettled in Canada say they are in hiding, terrified to venture outside, as Pakistani authorities begin mass deportations.

After the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 2021, many Afghans fled to neighbouring Pakistan, fearing violence and repression from the fundamentalist regime. For some, the plan was to remain there temporarily while they waited for admission to other countries, including Canada.

But many who made this journey have become stuck in Pakistan while they wait for their resettlement applications to be approved. In many cases they were issued short-term Pakistani visas, which have now expired.

Pakistani officials announced in early October that Afghans living illegally in the country would have one month to leave voluntarily. This week, that deadline passed, and officials began rounding up Afghans and sending them back to the country they fled. The Pakistani government has said undocumented Afghans pose a security threat.

A former interpreter for Canada’s military in Afghanistan, whom The Globe and Mail met last November in an Islamabad hotel, said he is now unable to take his sick wife to the hospital, because he is worried he will be caught and deported. The Globe is not naming Afghans interviewed for this story because they fear for their safety.

Even before the crackdown this week, the interpreter and his family spent most of their time indoors, terrified of police. They have no status in Pakistan, because their visas expired last year. More than two years ago, they applied for resettlement in Canada under a special program for Afghans who assisted the Canadian government in Afghanistan.

The interpreter said he has already run into problems with Pakistani authorities, and has had to pay bribes to escape arrest. But now, with images of deported Afghans flooding social media, he’s afraid bribes alone will no longer be enough.

“We are all in distress and depression,” he said. He called on the Canadian government to intervene.

The Taliban swept to power in Afghanistan after a chaotic withdrawal of Western troops in August, 2021. The Canadian government promised refuge to at least 40,000 Afghans, including those who worked for Canada’s military and diplomatic missions in the country. This week, Ottawa announced that it has met that goal, but is continuing the resettlement work.

Two years after Taliban takeover, many Afghans who helped Canada’s military remain in limbo

Isabelle Dubois, a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, said the government, including Canada’s High Commission in Islamabad, is monitoring the situation in Pakistan, and is engaging with the country’s government.

“Canada will continue to advocate for streamlined procedures and strengthened protections for vulnerable Afghans while working with the government of Pakistan to move Canada-bound Afghans safely,” she said.

Pakistan has dismissed calls from the United Nations, rights groups and Western embassies to reconsider its deportation plans. The country has claimed Afghans have been involved in Islamist militant attacks and other crimes. Taliban officials have denied the accusations.

Earlier this week, Human Rights Watch accused the Pakistani government of using threats, abuse and detention to coerce Afghans without legal status into returning to Afghanistan. In a news release, the group pointed out that many are waiting to travel to Canada or other countries.

The group says the deportations violate Pakistan’s obligations as a party to the UN Convention Against Torture and contravene the international-law principle of nonrefoulment, which holds that people should not be forced to return to countries where they face risk of torture or other persecution.

The release also notes that Afghan women and girls have faced even greater barriers to resettlement, because destination countries have “overwhelmingly” prioritized men who helped with military efforts.

One Afghan woman, who worked on a project funded by the Canadian government that was aimed at supporting women’s economic empowerment, has not been accepted into Canada’s resettlement program, but says she still hopes that day will come. The Globe met her last November, when she was living in a room in Peshawar. Like the interpreter, her visa has expired.

Unable to afford rent, she and her husband and children were forced onto the streets. They spent some time living in a damaged tent in a park. She said her previous landlord has since found a room for the family to stay in while the deportations continue.

“I’m completely in hiding … We don’t go outside. We cannot return,” she said.

“In Afghanistan, working with NATO countries like Canada, and before that the U.S. government, my life was very good,” she added. “We had a lot of food, my children were attending good schools. Now we don’t have warm clothes.”

On Friday, Pakistan opened additional border centres to expedite the return of tens of thousands of Afghans. At the main Afghan border crossing, Torkham, 19,744 Afghans crossed on Thursday, and 147,949 have crossed in total since the government announced the deadline, according to Abdul Nasir Khan, the deputy commissioner for Khyber district, which includes Torkham.

With a report from Reuters

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