Deportations damage the economy and the environment

An Afghan refugee carrying a load in Pakistan
At the end of 2023, Pakistan decreed that around 1.7 million Afghans with unresolved residence status should leave the country. The knock-on effect is having a major impact on agriculture, mines and businesses in Pakistan (image: FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP via Getty Images)

The deportation of Afghan refugees is taking a massive toll on Pakistan's recycling and plastics industry, which relies heavily on Afghan labourers

By S. Khan

Forty-eight-year-old Raja Mohammed Akhtar Khan's booming recycling business came to a halt a few weeks ago. He was making 1 million Pakistani rupees (€3,200) monthly, but the exodus of Afghan refugees from the South Asian country in recent weeks – many of whom were involved in trash and scrap collection – has dealt a severe blow to his business.

Hailing from Lahore in eastern Pakistan, Khan has been in the recycling business for over 22 years. He said Afghan refugees living in the country were some of the most hardworking people. Many of them also started several businesses in his city.

"Afghan refugees in my area would collect around 200 kilograms of plastic daily and deliver it to my shop," Khan recalled, saying that they would charge much less than their Pakistani counterparts for their work.

"Now I am only able to receive 35 kilograms of plastic daily, which has badly affected my business – causing me a loss of almost 700,000 rupees a month," Khan said. "It is not only me who has suffered, around 200 shops in my region are in the same situation."

Plastic rubbish on a rubbish heap in Pakistan
Pakistan generates approximately 49.6 million tons of solid waste a year, and this is increasing at a rate of over 2.4% annually, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Commerce. About 9% of this consists of plastic (image: Farooq Naeem/AFP)

Recycling industry in chaos

Since mid-September 2023, Pakistani authorities have deported around 20,000 Afghans to their war-ravaged home country. Threats, detentions and deportations have forced out another 355,000 Afghans, according to Human Rights Watch. The development is now taking a toll on large-scale plastic recycling industries, which rely heavily on Afghan workers.

Pakistan generates approximately 49.6 million tons of solid waste a year, and this is increasing at a rate of over 2.4% annually, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Commerce. About 9% of this consists of plastic.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, around 250 million tons of existing garbage in Pakistan primarily consists of plastic bags, PET bottles and food scraps. Some of this is being recycled by 19 recycling plants across the country.

Waleed Hameed, director of corporate social responsibility at Five Star Polymer Private Limited, a recycling factory in Lahore, said that several recycling plants were dependent on Afghan labourers.

Ever since the government's decision to deport Afghan refugees, he said, plastic collection has been down by 43% and production of polyester by 50%. Labour costs have also gone up, making it difficult for the recycling industry to survive. "If the same situation continues, then the industry is likely to suffer huge financial losses," Hameed said.

Nasir Khan, a scrap dealer from the southern port city of Karachi, said the collection of plastic and other materials has drastically come down. Collecting plastic and scrap was the "total domain of Afghan refugees" who would work for 16 to 18 hours collecting trash and sorting it out, Khan revealed.

An inspector from the Capital Development Authority in Islamabad, who asked not to be named, said recycling rubbish in Pakistan has become extremely difficult since the deportations of Afghan refugees began. "With limited human resources it is not possible for us to carry out such sorting at all," said the inspector.

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Environmental consequences

Environmentalists have warned that Pakistan's weakening recycling industry could further aggravate environmental degradation. According to the United Nations Development Program, Pakistan has one of the highest percentages of mismanaged plastic in South Asia. 

More than 3.3 million tons of plastic is wasted each year in Pakistan, with most of it ending up in landfills, unmanaged dumps or strewn about land and bodies of water across the country.

Afia Salam, an environmentalist, said that plastics recycling has just started gaining traction with businesses, but that the deportation of Afghan refugees is casting a negative shadow over the industry.

The immediate results have been visible, with falling production and the dwindling supply of plastic bottles, she said, adding that it is likely to continue for some time before the vacuum can be filled by Pakistani labourers.

'Severe' labour shortages

But Muhammad Saad Saleem, an Islamabad-based sustainable development expert, believes it will be very difficult for Pakistani labourers to fill this vacuum. "This is an extremely labour-intensive job, which Pakistani labourers, especially in Punjab, won't be [willing] to do," Saleem said, adding this is likely to cause severe labour shortages in the coming months.

Hameed said his company, which prepares 32 products from PET bottles, recycled more than 18,000 metric tons of bottles last year. "But I am not sure if we will be able to recycle the same amount next year after the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Afghan workers," he said.

Saleem also noted that they produce around 170,000 bottles annually for the beverages industry. "Collecting them and other plastic waste on time without Afghan refugees would be an uphill task."

S. Khan

© Deutsche Welle 2024