In October 2023, Pakistan announced that unregistered foreigners residing in the country were to be deported by a deadline of November 1, 2023.
This decision affected 1.6 million Afghan refugees who were living in Pakistan, many of whom had fled from the Taliban's oppressive regime in their homeland. Since the deadline, more than 200,000 Afghan refugees have returned to Afghanistan.
However, for Afghan musicians, this means returning to a place where they could be harmed, due to the Taliban's ban on music.
Currently, around 300 Afghan singers are living in different parts of Pakistan, mostly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan. More than 200 of them had migrated to Pakistan after the fall of Kabul in August 2021, hoping to find a safe haven for their art.
Khan Agha, an Afghan singer and Rubabist, said that they had initially hoped that the Taliban might change their attitude towards music, as they claimed to be different from the Taliban of the 90s. But they became very disappointed to see the burning of music schools and an outright ban on music. "We are grateful that Pakistan sheltered us, but now we are worried about the future of Afghan music after Pakistan's recent decision," he said.
The deportation wave has triggered protests from Pakistani musicians and activists, who have expressed their solidarity with the Afghan artists facing persecution in their homeland. They have offered both financial and legal support to the Afghan musicians and have filed a petition in the Peshawar High Court against the federal government's decision, seeking protection for the artists from the Pakistani authorities.
Syed Bacha is one of the many Afghan musicians who have fled their country after the Taliban takeover in 2021. Syed Bacha is a singer who also arranges speakers and other musical instruments for events. He has been in this business for 10 years, running it both in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But he had to leave Afghanistan when the Taliban came to power.
Syed Bacha told the Friday times, "They tortured us and told us to leave the country. When I was shifting from Afghanistan to Pakistan, they stopped us at the Torkham border. They tortured us and seized our instruments. They know each and every one who has been associated with music. They will not allow us to go back."
Another artist, who wanted to remain anonymous, said, "We are artists. We want to spread peace and harmony through our music. He further said "We want to live with dignity and respect." We share a common culture and language with the people on both sides of the border. We appeal to the Pakistani government and the international community to hear us," he added.
Dr Rashid Khan, a Pakistani singer and head of a local NGO called "Hunari Tolona", told The Friday Times that the situation for singers in Afghanistan is life-threatening. "If they go back, either they have to leave their art or they have to face death." He added it was also about preserving and promoting the cultural heritage of Pashto music, because in Pakistan they not only continued their music but preserved different styles and traditions of Afghan music.
One of the Afghan singers, Naqibullah Shawqi, in another interview spoke about what music meant for them. "We cannot live without music. It is our only passion and livelihood. The recent arrests of Afghan musicians and their deportation have put a lot of mental pressure on our families, because singing and art are our primary source of income."
The international community, including the UNHCR, has urged Pakistan to respect the principle of non-refoulement, which means not sending refugees back to a country where they could face harm. The UNHCR has also emphasized the need for humane treatment and voluntary repatriation for those who are willing to return to Afghanistan.
Rashid Khan further said that music is an integral part of any culture, and the Taliban's approach is threatening to erase this artistic heritage. He demand the government to take special measures, such as granting asylum and expediting visa processes, to protect the musicians who could not return to Afghanistan due to the life-threatening conditions.