Pakistan warns paperless migrants about jail time, alarming Afghans waiting to come to Canada

An Afghan refugee holds a small Canadian flag at the St. John's International Airport on Oct. 26, 2021. (Ritche Perez/Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada - image credit)
An Afghan refugee holds a small Canadian flag at the St. John's International Airport on Oct. 26, 2021. (Ritche Perez/Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada - image credit)

Afghan refugee applicants and an aid group trying to bring them to Canada are warning the federal government about a new deadline looming in Pakistan for undocumented migrants.

Pakistan is threatening to throw people in jail for up to three years if they do not renew their visas by the end of 2022. The process costs applicants hundreds of dollars each — putting families that escaped Afghanistan and the Taliban with little or no money at a serious disadvantage.

A video ad produced by Pakistan's Ministry of the Interior has been streaming on government social media channels and on television since the start of October. It warns that "overstaying foreigners may be sentenced for up to three years of imprisonment" after December 31.

"The messaging by the Pakistani government that those Afghans that are in Pakistan illegally will be deported and potentially arrested is very troubling," said Brian Macdonald, executive director for Aman Lara, a non-profit organization of Canadian veterans and interpreters who have been working for more than a year to bring Afghan refugees to Canada.

While the only foreign countries named in the ad are India and Somalia, it's running in three different languages: Urdu (Pakistan's national language) and Dari and Pashto, frequently spoken by Afghans.

Mohammad Nasimi
Mohammad Nasimi

"They are targeting us directly," said Mohammad Younas Nasimi, an Afghan refugee applicant. He's living in a hotel room in Islamabad with his wife and six children while he waits to see if he qualifies for a Special Immigration Measures program run by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).

The program is meant to help accelerate immigration for former military interpreters and other former employees of the Canadian government and armed forces, along with their families.

As a contract labourer, Nasimi helped Canadian troops in Afghanistan detect bombs and landmines laid by the Taliban.

Nasimi said he has been waiting for a reply from IRCC for a year.

He said he fears his family's status in Pakistan is becoming more precarious. A few weeks after he first saw the ad playing on television, he said, his two-year-old son was beaten up in their hotel.

"I still didn't find out who the guy was [that did this to him]," Nasimi said, adding his son suffered head injuries.

"His nose was very damaged and he was bleeding."

He said he sent the Canadian High Commission in Pakistan a note but all he got was a reply stating his immigration file was still being processed.

Pakistan says Afghans with valid papers will be 'facilitated'

In a media statement, Pakistan's High Commission in Canada said it remains committed "to facilitating travelling from Pakistan of all those Afghans whose cases are identified by the sponsoring countries/governments through their Missions in Pakistan."

It also said the video ad applies to all overstaying foreigners, not just Afghans.

"[Afghans] having valid travel documents as well as visas/documents for onward travel from Pakistan have been and will be facilitated by the Government of Pakistan," said the statement.

CBC News has spoken to one refugee applicant whose paperless status has placed him in the crosshairs of police.

CBC News has agreed not to identify him because of the dangers he faces in Islamabad and those he would face after being deported to Afghanistan. He said he has been waiting for eleven months to find out if he qualifies to move to Canada.

He said his father worked as a carpenter with the Canadian Armed Forces and he was a volunteer with Aman Lara before he fled Afghanistan in 2021 following its fall to the Taliban.

He, his parents and nine siblings were only able to afford visa fees once after they moved to Islamabad from Afghanistan, he said. His family members have been waiting since to find out if they also qualify for Canada's immigration program.

In mid-October, they received a letter from their guest house urging them to renew their visas. "Dear guest we are facing problem from Pakistan law enforcement agencies," said the note, signed by a general manager for Capetown Guest House.

The Canadian High Commission and the United Nations' International Organization for Migration have since helped him and his family move to another guest house. The family is still waiting for their immigration paperwork to be cleared by the Canadian government.

'Constructive dialogue' with Pakistan continues, Ottawa says

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada and Global Affairs Canada said in media statements that they continue to have strong relationships with the Pakistani government.

The IRCC said it has an "active and constructive dialogue" with Islamabad on "issues related to safe passage for vulnerable Afghans."

It side-stepped a question about concerns related to the video ad but said "each country maintains the authority to set its own entry and exit requirements."

Global Affairs said it appreciates "Pakistan's efforts in supporting Canada's Afghan resettlement program."

Roughly 18 charter flights carrying Afghans from Pakistan have come  to Canada since January 2022, according to IRCC.

Citing security concerns, however, neither department would say how many Afghans are still waiting in Pakistan for permission to come to Canada.

Aman Lara said it is in touch with about 400 Afghans in the same situation.

According to a directive from Pakistan's government, from June to August this year it granted safe passage to Afghans who did not have valid travel documentation "through land air routes ... on a case by case basis, in coordination with the recipient third countries."

Aman Lara said it hopes authorities in Islamabad return to that policy.

Derek Hooper/CBC
Derek Hooper/CBC

"We encourage the government of Pakistan to reopen that window," said Macdonald.

But according to one Canadian government official with knowledge of the situation, Pakistan has told Canada and other countries with immigration measures for Afghans — such as the United Kingdom, the United States and Germany — that it cannot maintain loose borders forever for the sake of their immigration programs.

The source spoke to CBC News on the condition they not be named, as they were not authorized to comment publicly.

The source also said that, more than a year after the Taliban takeover, Islamabad no longer looks at the Afghan refugee situation as an emergency.

The source said Pakistan does periodic social media campaigns about border rules.