Deportation drive sparks 'sense of panic' among Afghan refugees in Pakistan: UNHCR

KARACHI (Reuters) - The U.N. refugee agency on Tuesday expressed concern over widespread distress in large Afghan refugee communities across Pakistan where authorities are conducting searches to round up and expel undocumented foreigners.

Islamabad last month announced it would expel over a million undocumented refugees, mostly Afghans, amid a row with Kabul over charges it harbours anti-Pakistan militants. Over 370,000 Afghans have fled Pakistan since Oct. 1.

Pakistan says documented refugees are exempt, but the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) said even those with the right documents were being targeted.

"The announcement and follow-up actions, including reports of intimidation by local authorities and evictions by landlords, have created a sense of panic," UNHCR's Pakistan representative, Philippa Candler, said at a briefing in Geneva, according to a statement from the agency.

She reiterated that the return of Afghans should be voluntary and that Pakistan should identify vulnerable individuals who need international protection.

Pakistan says harassment of documented refugees is rare and it is taking action against perpetrators. But it has continued a search operation in various cities to verify the status of refugees, many of whom have lived in the country for decades.

In the southern port city of Karachi, where hundreds of thousands of Afghans live, police carried out door-to-door searches in refugee settlements along with officials of the national database authority.

In one area on the outskirts of the city, a slum settlement of hundreds of small houses, officials knocked on the doors and asked residents to provide identification, which was cross checked by electronic tablets.

Reluctant and visibly distressed residents allowed a female police officer into their homes to verify the identification of women and children as well. None of the families wanted to speak to Reuters journalists present at the site.

There was no resistance and search parties did not have to use force and returned documents of those whose documents checked out.

Thousands of Afghans have gone underground in Pakistan fearing deportation, saying they feared for their lives if they returned to Afghanistan, which is now run by the Islamist Taliban movement following the hasty and chaotic withdrawal of U.S.-led western forces in 2021.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said in a press note that the sudden arrival of hundreds of thousands of Afghans had created a fresh crisis in Afghanistan where the returnees needed aid and shelter as winter sets in.

"With over six million people already internally displaced throughout the country, Afghans returning from Pakistan face a precarious, uncertain future," IOM said. (This story has been corrected to fix the spelling of Philippa Candler's name in paragraph 4)

(Reporting by Gibran Peshimam and Akhtar Soomro; Editing by Nick Macfie)