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PESHAWAR: Hundreds of thousands of Afghans living in Pakistan faced detention and deportation on Wednesday, as a government deadline for them to leave sparked a mass exodus.

The government has given 1.7 million Afghans it says are living illegally in the country until Nov. 1 to leave voluntarily or be forcibly removed.

Thousands joined a snaking queue that stretched 7 kilometers at the busiest border point on Wednesday, with border officials reporting at least 29,000 people crossed into Afghanistan the day before.

“Since November 1, the process of arrest and subsequent deportation of illegal foreigners has begun. However, the voluntary return of illegal foreigners will also continue and be encouraged,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement.

It said more than 140,000 people have left Pakistan since the start of October when the order was issued by an unelected caretaker government ahead of elections due in January.

Forty-nine holding centers, some capable of holding several thousand people, opened across the country on Wednesday to process and deport Afghans, state media said.

“My heart doesn’t really want to return to Afghanistan but I have no other choice,” said 32-year-old Irfanullah, as he waited to be deported.

“The police were harassing me … they used to disrespect all the men and women by entering our houses, that’s why we are returning, to avoid further humiliation.”

Millions of Afghans have poured into Pakistan in recent decades, fleeing a series of violent conflicts, including an estimated 600,000 since the Taliban government seized power in August 2021 and imposed its harsh interpretation of Islamic law.

Human Rights Watch has said Afghans awaiting resettlement to the US, UK, Germany and Canada after fleeing the Taliban government are at risk of deportation after their Pakistan visas expired.

Pakistan has said the deportations are to protect its “welfare and security” after a sharp rise in attacks, which the government blames on militants operating from Afghanistan. Authorities on the Afghan side of the border have been overwhelmed by the scale of the exodus as they attempt to process those returning — some of whom are setting foot in Afghanistan for the first time in their lives.

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