By Asif Shahzad
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) -Pakistan will start rounding up and expelling undocumented immigrants, including hundreds of thousands of people from neighbouring Afghanistan, on Thursday, the caretaker government’s interior minister said.
Islamabad announced the plan earlier this month, saying Afghan nationals had been behind attacks, smuggling and other crimes in its territory. Kabul dismissed the accusations and rights groups protested, asking Pakistan to reconsider.
“Only two days are left for a voluntary return,” Sarfraz Bugti said in a video statement released on Tuesday.
The operation would be “lengthy and gradual,” he added without going into further details on the time frame.
“We are not deporting any refugees. Only those who are completely illegal will leave Pakistan,” he said.
Pakistan is home to more than 4 million Afghan migrants and refugees, about 1.7 million of them undocumented, according to the interior ministry.
Islamabad has said that Afghans were involved in 14 suicide attacks this year and has accused militant groups operating in its territory of training fighters over the border.
Bugti said those leaving voluntarily will be assisted by the government at temporary centres.
“We will try to provide them food and health facilities for two to three days,” he added.
Western embassies and the United Nations have urged Pakistan to identify and protect Afghans at risk of persecution at home.
“Amnesty International strongly reiterates its call to the Government of Pakistan to immediately reverse its decision to forcibly deport unregistered Afghan refugees ahead of the deadline set for tomorrow,” the group said in a statement.
It added that Pakistan must meet its international legal obligations including the principle of non-refoulement and stop the crackdown against, and harassment of, Afghan refugees across the country.
“Amnesty International is also calling on the international community to financially support Pakistan for hosting Afghan refugees, and to share the responsibility to provide protection to those fleeing persecution in Afghanistan,” the statement added.
Amnesty International said lives and rights are at stake due to “the collective failure of the Pakistan Government and the international community to share the responsibility for their protection,” stressing the risks for women, journalists, human rights defenders, protesters, artists, and former government officials and security personnel.
(Reporting by Asif Shahzad; Editing by Ed Osmond, Chizu Nomiyama, Andrew Heavens and Mark Porter)