PESHAWAR, Nov 8: As the federal government has yet to make final decision about the future of 1.6 million registered Afghans living in the country, the United High Commissioner for Refugees says under the international law, the United Nations will recognise them all as refugees beyond Dec 31, 2012.

“The Pakistani government must decide what status it offers to 1.6 million Afghan refugees from January 1, 2013 onward, but under the international law, the UN will recognise them as refugees,” UNHCR country head Neill Wright told a news briefing at a voluntary return centre here in Chamkani area on Thursday.

Federal minister for states and frontier regions Shaukatullah was also in attendance.

When asked about the legal status of the registered refugees after Dec 2012, Mr Wright said whether Pakistan had a national policy for recognising registered Afghans or not, the UN recognised them as refugees.

“I am very much hopeful that Pakistan will have a national policy by December 31, so Afghan refugees are not left with any doubt about their status under the international law,” he said, adding that Afghans must be assured that their status would change.

Minister for Safron Shaukatullah said the federal government had yet to decide about whether to give further extension to PoR cards’ holders or not.

The government has issued Proof of Registration cards to 1.7 million Afghans in 2009 to legalise their stay by the end of 2012.

Recently, the Peshawar High Court had ordered not to extend stay of registered refugees, while the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government had asked both documented Afghans to make preparations for returning to their country before the expiry of the cards. Undocumented Afghans had already been ordered to leave province as soon as possible.

The minister said the government would respect the court’s verdict about Afghan refugees but had also to follow international commitments. He said the government would not expel documented Afghans by force.

“The government will facilitate voluntary repatriation process and this is not possible to bundle Afghans into trucks and send them across the border,” he said. He said refugees were being convinced through the jirga to encourage them to avail opportunity and go back to Afghanistan. He said returnees would be provided all facilities including financial assistance.

He said the government acknowledged efforts of UNHCR in implementing the agreement between the two sides and facilitating a surge in voluntary repatriation for the remainder of the year.

He said the government was in the process of formulating a new strategy for Afghan refugees in 2013 and beyond which, of course, would require the approval of the federal cabinet.

“I reassure everyone here that the goodwill which the people and the Government of Pakistan have earned by hosting Afghan brothers over the years shall not go to waste. The return of Afghan refugees back to their homeland will continue to be voluntary and dignified,” he said.

A statement issued later by UNHCR quoted Neill Wright as saying that the organisation had supported Pakistan and provided hundreds of millions of dollars of assistance to refugees hosted on the sovereign territory over the past three decades.

According to the statement, the new assistance package offered by UNHCR includes the provision of non-food item kits distributed to the returning families at Chamkani, Timergara and Quetta voluntary repatriation centres.

These items include jerry cans, buckets, soap, mosquito nets, sleeping mats, blanket, cooking set, plastic tarpaulins, quilt, sanitary cloths and winter clothes. Since September this year, UNHCR has also started facilitating the group return of families that originate from the same areas inside Afghanistan.

So far, four groups consisting of some 1,300 Afghan refugees have returned home under the Facilitated Group Return programme from Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

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