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Pakistan begins mass deportation of Afghan refugees

Pakistan has begun mass deportation of undocumented Afghans residing in the country illegally, including thousands of people who escaped the Taliban's rule and who are at risk of persecution at home after the country fell to the Taliban two years ago following the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.

In October, the Pakistani government gave 1.7 million Afghan refugees living in the country until Nov. 1 to leave voluntarily or face arrest and forced deportation. Police also warned landlords to avoid renting homes for undocumented refugees.

Trucks transporting Afghan refugees with their belongings are seen along a road towards the Pakistan-Afghanistan Torkham border on Nov. 3, 2023, following Pakistan's government decision to expel people illegally staying in the country.  ABDUL MAJEED/AFP via Getty Images

"Today, we said goodbye to 64 Afghan nationals as they began their journey back home." Pakistan's interior minister tweeted, along with a video of a group of Afghans boarding a bus, adding, "This action is a testament to Pakistan's determination to repatriate any individuals residing in the country without proper documentation."

Videos shared on social media show bulldozers leveling to the ground mud-made houses of Afghan refugees while women, men, and children watch in despair. Many were born, raised, got married and had their children in the same village that was now being destroyed.

On Thursday, thousands of poor and exhausted refugees and their families flocked to the borders, fearing the Pakistani government's detention and forced deportation as the Nov. 1 deadline passed. A photo of an Afghan child tied with a rope behind a moving truck while waving went viral, showing the tragedy of a refugee's life.

Pakistan gave last warning to undocumented migrants to leave, in Karachi
An Afghan girl waves from the bus window as she is being repatriated to Afghanistan, along with her family, who according to police were undocumented, in Karachi, Pakistan, on Nov. 2, 2023.  AKHTAR SOOMRO / REUTERS

Alongside the refugee aid agencies in Afghanistan, the Taliban authorities have also established a commission to provide essential services to the returnees, including temporary accommodation, food, health services, and transportation to their destinations. Taliban army trucks were loaded with refugees heading to their home provinces from the border.

Islamabad announced the deportation of Afghan refugees after the militant group known as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, stepped up attacks in Pakistan in the last two years. Islamabad has long accused the Afghan Taliban — now Afghanistan's de facto government — of supporting the TTP,  an accusation the Afghan Taliban denies.

Deportation "is a death sentence"

Those who received deportation notices included some of the most vulnerable people, including women's rights activists, musicians, and people who worked for the U.S.-backed government in Kabul before the Taliban takeover in 2021.

The deportation order "is a death sentence for them," Lanny Cordola, an American musician, told CBS News in a phone interview from Pakistan. "It feels like we're living this nightmare again — (a) variation of it."

A 62-year-old guitarist, songwriter and producer from Los Angeles, Cordola is a teacher and self-appointed guardian of nearly 30 street girls from Afghanistan. The girls, aged between 6 and 19, come from the most poverty-stricken families, and some lost their parents at a young age. In 2014, he started teaching the girls to play guitar as they sold clean tissues, books and other items on the streets of Kabul to support their families.

When Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in 2021, he managed to move the girls to Pakistan. Many of them were without a visa.

The girls, now known as the Miraculous Love Kids, have become famous for playing at ambassadors' residences in Islamabad and are known among the music community through their songs. 

A group of Afghan girls who perform as musicians in Pakistan
A group of Afghan girls who perform as musicians in Pakistan, known as the Miraculous Love Kids. Lanny Cordola

"There are some locals that are running around that have come to two of the girl's houses, threaten them and harass them, and insulted them, calling them dirty Afghans," Cordola told CBS News. "It's quite alarming, and I have them in hiding right now as I'm trying to scramble through all this."

"If Taliban find out that these girls have been with an American learning music and playing music with westerners, they have no problem killing musicians. They have no problem killing girls or marrying them off to Taliban. it would be an utter disaster for them." said Cordola.

The Taliban has banned music in Afghanistan, including in wedding halls, and punished anyone playing or singing.

Lanny Cordola with a group of Afghan girls he helped in Pakistan
Lanny Cordola with a group of Afghan girls he helped train as musicians. Lanny Cordola

Nilab (not her real name) is a women's rights and girls' education activist who's been living in hiding with her underage son in the suburbs of Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, for over a year now. She came to Pakistan in 2022 with a medical visa that has now expired. She is renting a room and lives with a family with legal documentation.

"I hid in a Pakistani neighbor's house when the police searched our home for people without a visa," she told CBS News. "I sent my son for grocery and when police find out he is Afghan, they harass him, and he come back with tearful eyes." 

Nilab was among the activists who protested the Taliban's draconian policies targeting women and girls. She was arrested and imprisoned with her son and other female activists for several weeks at a Taliban jail in Kabul.

"I escaped the Taliban and took refuge in Pakistan," she told CBS News over the phone. "Now they are sending me back to the Taliban. The Taliban will kill me because we protested their rules and called on the international community not to recognize them."

 The United Nations officials said they were "extremely alarmed" by Pakistan's collective punishment of nearly 2 million Afghan refugees as winter approaches, and expressed concerns over rights violations of those at risk.

"We believe many of those facing deportation will be at grave risk of human rights violations if returned to Afghanistan, including arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, cruel and other inhuman treatment," Ravina Shamdasani, a spokesperson for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in a statement.

"Those at particular risk are: civil society activists, journalists, human rights defenders, former government officials and security force members, and of course women and girls as a whole, who, as a result of the abhorrent policies currently in place in Afghanistan, are banned from secondary and tertiary education, working in many sectors and other aspects of daily and public life."

"It shouldn't hurt to be a refugee," reads a sign held by Miraculous Love Kids. "Afghan girls' lives matter." 

Afghan girls hold a sign saying "It shouldn't hurt to be a refugee"
A group of Afghan girls who perform as musicians in Pakistan, known as the Miraculous Love Kids, hold signs saying "It shouldn't hurt to be a refugee" and "Afghan girls' lives matter." Lanny Cordola
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