KARACHI, Pakistan — The winter sunlight pierces through the bars of the prison window, bouncing off of Palwasha’s sparkling clothes and creating little rainbows on the tiled floor. Dozens of women and children surround the 18-year-old. Three months ago, she left her home in Afghanistan to marry her fiance in neighbouring Pakistan, but she was arrested on the way by police in Karachi.
Palwasha is the tragic bride in a prison barrack full of dozens of Afghan women and children, most of whom came to Pakistan seeking medical attention. Palwasha and other women and children interviewed by VICE World News are identified with pseudonyms for their safety and privacy.
They are among 1,500 Afghan women, children and men arrested by police in recent months in Pakistan’s southern province Sindh, and awaiting deportation after serving two- to four-month prison sentences. They stand accused of violating the “Foreigner’s Act” by being in the country without valid Afghan IDs, refugee or travel documents.
Images of the Afghan women and children in Pakistani jails were shared by a Pakistani lawyer on Twitter in December and went viral. After they caused an uproar in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, the UN’s refugee agency in Pakistan posted a vague tweet: “We acknowledge the official reaction on the reported images on social media. UNHCR continues to work with the Government of Pakistan, to protect and assist those seeking safety.”
The Afghan women and children have been swept up as part of an immigration crackdown by Sindh authorities since October, in which provincial police have been combing buses and streets, racially profiling and checking the documents of anyone who looks Afghan. Those without documents have been arrested and sent to prison, where they’re assigned a lawyer in order to face a judge and be deported.
The police crackdown is only happening in Sindh, hundreds of miles from where the detainees crossed over from Afghanistan. It began after authorities busted different highway robbery gangs in September—the members of which happened to be undocumented Afghans. Deporting undocumented Afghans has become the police’s focus for scapegoating its decades-old petty theft and street crime problem.
In late January, VICE World News visited the Women’s Prison Karachi, where currently 185 Afghan women and children awaiting deportation are being held. It has separate community sections created for Afghan women and children within their facilities so they don’t mix with Pakistani prisoners. Afghan women and children, held exclusively for violating the Foreigner’s Act, now make up half of that prison’s population.
“When they first arrived, we declared a medical emergency,” Sheeba Shah, the Deputy Inspector General at the Women’s Prison Karachi, told VICE World News. “More than half of the Afghan women and children had severe skin problems, diarrhoea, dry cough and fever,” she said.
Fatima Umer Farooqui, who works for the government-funded Committee for the Welfare of Prisoners’s Legal Aid Office, which monitors inmate rights and provides free legal aid to prisoners, told VICE World News that overcrowding in the prisons following the immigration roundup is a health disaster in the making.
“They should be deported immediately, instead of serving a sentence,” Farooqui said. “Because of their influx, the prison facilities are operating above their authorised capacity. Overcrowding can lead to a health outbreak.”
At the time of visiting, there was a chickenpox outbreak among some Afghan children, who were being held in a separate area with their mothers. The facility’s Montessori school had also been suspended initially to control any outbreaks.
But Rahat Shinwari, a Pakistani tribal activist who lives near the Afghan border, believes all the Afghan women and their children should be released in Pakistan. From the same tribe as many of the Afghan detainees, he came to meet the prisoners in Karachi to see how he could help them.
“Almost all of them are from my Shinwari tribe, which is divided between Afghanistan and Pakistan,” he said. “Their husbands have brought them here for treatment. They don’t even know what crime they have committed. They don’t understand borders, laws or crimes. These women and children should be released on a humanitarian basis.”
Prison officials have hired translators, extra doctors, and have created medical files for Afghan women in the prison. But what alarmed prison officials was how they reported that basic medical care, like children’s fever medication, was unavailable in their towns back in Afghanistan.
One imprisoned Afghan woman is being treated for second-stage stomach cancer at a Karachi hospital. Prison staff escort her to her appointments. “As long as she is here, she will undergo treatment,” police chief Shah said.
Prison officials hope she’ll complete her treatment before she is ordered deported. In Afghanistan, the Taliban recently banned women from seeing male doctors.
Following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in 2021, there has been a rise in Afghan families seeking to enter Pakistan to flee persecution, men and teenage boys coming in search of jobs, and women seeking medical attention. UNHCR has documented about 600,000 new arrivals since U.S. troops left Afghanistan in August that year, but many more are believed to be undocumented and not included in these statistics.
Even before the recent Taliban takeover, there were more than 800,000 undocumented Afghans in Pakistan. Many live a precarious life in the shadows, often working in tea shops, as garbage collectors, or as construction workers—despite their hardship, life is tougher back home.
Millions of Afghans fled to Pakistan during the 1979–1989 Soviet occupation of their country. In the years following the U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Taliban in 2001, nearly 4.4 million refugees voluntarily repatriated to Afghanistan under a UNHCR scheme that gave them an incentive of $250 per person.
After the latest Taliban takeover, UNHCR increased the cash incentive for voluntary repatriation to $375 per person. Only about 6,000 Afghans chose to return to Afghanistan in 2022. Instead, many more Afghans are making their way to Pakistan, some to reclaim their expired Proof of Registration (POR) cards, and others just taking a chance without documents.
Most of the 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan were actually born in Pakistan, but there isn’t a path to citizenship for them. A further 840,000 Afghans are permitted to be in Pakistan with Afghan Citizen Cards, but the procedure to become a registered refugee in Pakistan—and lawfully work, go to school, rent homes—is riddled with obstacles.
It requires documents that prove they have immediate family members who are already registered Afghans. For those Afghans who could neither read nor write, obtaining these documents is a challenge.
Afghanistan’s economy has taken a massive blow since the Taliban returned to power. Foreign aid, which accounted for nearly 40 percent of the country’s GDP before, was mostly pulled due to fears over human rights abuses under the harsh rule of the religious extremists. Within a year, the cost of basic food essentials in the country rose 35 percent, with five in 10 Afghans facing acute malnutrition and 700,000 jobs vanished, according to an October 2022 UNDP report.
“There is nothing in my village. Nothing. There are no jobs. My kids cry for food and clothes. One got sick and I didn’t have money to get her treated,” Samina, a 40-year-old mother, told VICE World News from Karachi’s Women’s Prison. “I am desperate, that’s why I came here.”
Samina is of Afghan origin, but says she was born and raised in Pakistan, before getting married in Afghanistan when she was 20. When the Taliban returned to power, she wanted to move to her parents’ home in Pakistan, where two of her children were already staying. But she doesn’t have what most documented Afghans born in Pakistan have: a POR card.
If Samina is assigned a good lawyer, they might be able to make a case for her to stay in Pakistan. The same goes for her fellow detainee Palwasha, whose future husband is one of the 1.4 million registered and documented Afghan refugees in Pakistan. If they had married, he could have applied to register Palwasha as well. But bad luck and overzealous policing trapped both women in Pakistan’s legal system.
While most Afghan prisoners reported to the Committee for the Welfare of Prisoners’ Legal Aid Office that they’d rather be deported to Afghanistan than sit in jail, some like Abdullah, a 12-year-old Afghan child, said he didn’t want to go back because he was born in Pakistan.
“Give us freedom in Pakistan. We belong here, not in Afghanistan,” he told VICE World News. “I was born in Quetta city, in Pakistan. My father and I used to sell and serve tea.”
Abdullah’s father was also detained in the recent Sindh immigration crackdown and is being held in the men’s jail, while his mother died three years ago giving birth to his younger sister. Abdullah and his three younger siblings are the only children at the women’s prison without a parent. Their case is an unusual one, and their presence at the women’s prison is what alerted the Karachi prisoner rights non-profit to look into the sudden influx of Afghan detainees and release a report about the situation in December.
Unlike the rest of Pakistan’s penal system, the country’s prison system for children, teenagers and women focuses on the family unit, community living, reformation and vocational training. Teenagers and children have access to their gym facilities, a game room with a foosball table, a library, and an art room, and are required to attend school.
The only children allowed in the women’s jail are ones the court decides would be better off living with their imprisoned mother than with family outside. Children older than three are required to attend the prison’s Montessori school. Prison officials decided Abdullah and his siblings would be better off together in the women’s jail along with other Afghan women and children. Otherwise, he would have been sent to a juvenile facility, and his younger siblings to a youth offender home.
Abdullah said his family hasn’t been assigned a lawyer yet, but he insisted his father was documented; he just wasn’t carrying proof of it when they were arrested.
About one in 10 of the Afghan detainees told the Pakistan’s National Commission of Human Rights that they do have documents, but they are misplaced, lost, or stolen. Some reported to a Pakistani lawyer that their documents were confiscated by police when they were arrested, but this could not be independently verified.
Pakistan, which has been hosting the largest population of refugees in the world for decades, has a federal ministry tasked with guarding the rights of Afghan refugees. Salim Khan, Pakistan’s chief commissioner for Afghan refugees, told VICE World News that none of the detainees were POR card holders or Afghan Citizens’ Card holders. “Whenever they are detained by mistake, they are released instantly,” he said. “The people you are referring to are the responsibility of the provincial police.”
Registered Afghan refugees are required to register their children too, and children of POR card holders born in Pakistan are eligible to receive their own POR cards once they turn five. It’s unclear if Abdullah or his siblings were registered by their parents.
But while Abdullah and many others like him wish to stay in the country they’ve lived their whole lives in, deportation is the most likely outcome for those undocumented caught by police. Many Afghan detainees wait months before they get a lawyer, after which they’re usually processed for deportation anyway.
The Taliban, keen on generating good PR in their quest for international and domestic legitimacy, appear to have found an opportunity with the refugees. In January, they arranged buses on two separate occasions to take back more than 600 men, women and children from Karachi who had been processed for deportation after serving their sentences.
They heavily publicised the effort, releasing pictures and videos of smiling Taliban diplomats from their consulate greeting the Afghan detainees, handing out meals to take back home in styrofoam containers and suggesting they were “rescued” from Pakistani jails.
But the reasons Afghans are fleeing to Pakistan in the first place—healthcare, jobs, persecution and freedom—are not being addressed.
A prison guard blows his whistle at the juvenile facility and rows of boys between 12 and 16 years stand up. They just finished computer class at their school, a mandatory lesson at the facility. When asked what they enjoyed learning most in their class, the Afghan and Pakistani teen detainees said “Photoshop.” Some had never even touched a computer before entering the facility.
Unlike in the women’s prison, the Afghan teens are held together with Pakistani prisoners. The official in charge at the prison said the Afghan detainees are among their brightest and most hardworking students; that they were a good influence on the Pakistani teens, mostly detained for petty theft and drugs.
“They see the Afghan boys paying attention and studying hard, and they get inspired to do better themselves when they are out of here,” prison official Zulfiqar Ali Pirzada, told VICE World News.
Unlike the inmates and children held in the Women’s Prison Karachi, the majority of the Afghan juvenile detainees don’t have family in Pakistan, according to the prisoners’ welfare committee that interviewed them.
Mehwish Naz, a lawyer with the committee, is represents five boys at the facility between the ages of 12 and 16 who were working as garbage collectors or at tea shops before they were arrested by police.
“I feel terrible. They are children. It’s their time to play,” she told VICE World News. “Instead, they are leaving their country and entering another country to work, something even an adult would be terrified of doing.”
Back in the women’s jail, Palwasha is visibly uncomfortable while the women around her tease her about being in jail before her “lifelong imprisonment” starts—marriage. Huddled in the corner with her face covered in her white shawl, she said that if she’s deported, her family would try to send her back to Pakistan.
Many women from her village are getting married to Afghan men living in Pakistan—some documented, and some undocumented—for the prospect of a freer and better life.
“We didn’t do anything wrong,” Saadia, a 25-year-old Afghan inmate, who came to Pakistan to get medicine for her husband, told VICE World News. “The medicine was not available in Afghanistan, so I came here to get it. But these cruel people locked us innocent people up. I am getting everything here, but I don’t want to live in a prison. You might as well send me back to Afghanistan.”