PESHAWAR, June 13: With the official deadline for the withdrawal of refugee status from Afghan refugees nearing an end on June 30, officials privy to the matter believe the newly-elected federal government will have little choice other than extending the stay of more than 1.6 million Afghans in Pakistan — at least for now.
Officials said that all registered refugees in Pakistan would lose their refugee status and become illegal if they don’t get another extension. After the expiry of the deadline, their legal status would automatically stand nullified. Previous government had given registered refugees six-month extension from January 1, 2013 on requests of Afghan President Karzai and the international community — that has done next to nothing to feed and shelter them.
“Registered Afghans will become illegal if the government does not legalise them before July 1,” Ziaur Rehman, Commissioner Afghan Refugees, told Dawn on Thursday.
He said over 1.6 million undocumented Afghans were living unlawfully in Pakistan and the number would get doubled if the government withdrew the refuge status from registered Afghans.
Officials said that Minister for States and Frontier Regions Lt-Gen Abdul Qadir Baloch was briefed on the issue in Islamabad on Wednesday and he would take the matter to the cabinet.
Officials said that Pakistan was currently hosting 1.6 million registered Afghans and one million of them were in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In collaboration with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee the government had provided Proof of Registration (PoR) cards to registered Afghans to legalise their stay till December 2012.
The provincial government led by Awami National Party had warned holders of the PoR card in August 2012 to return to their country before the expiry of their refuge status.
In addition, the Peshawar High Court had directed the federal government last year not to grant further extension to registered refugees. But the Supreme Court set aside the PHC order.
Instead of finding sustainable and permanent solution of the lingering issue, the previous government gave refugees six months’ extension till June 2013.
The UNHCR has been opposing forced return of the refugees and insists that Islamabad should go for voluntary repatriation of Afghans. But voluntary repatriation has not been able to encourage Afghans, staying here since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
According to the UN agency, only 16,000 Afghans had gone back to their homeland since January last year under the voluntary repatriation programme.
The UNHCR is paying $150 to each refugee returning under the programme. Officials believe that voluntary repatriation programme has been a “joke” and may never resolve the issue even in 10 to 15 years.
“There is no border management between the two countries and thousands of Afghans cross back into Pakistan every month without valid documents,” said an official, adding that the UN body was just fulfilling formalities.
UNHCR spokesperson Dunya Islam Khan told Dawn that the matter of extending the PoR cards would be discussed with the new government in Islamabad.She said that the Solution Strategy for Afghan Refugees (SSAR) would be taken up at the inter-ministerial meeting to be held in Islamabad on June 20 while officials of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the UNHCR would discuss the issue during a teleconference on June 18.
“Apart from internal security, social and economic conditions including shelter, health, education and drinking water are also major factors which play a crucial role in the voluntary return of the refugees to their country,” she said.
The SSAR strategy portrays a dismal picture of the economy of war-turn Afghanistan. According to a document, about 36 per cent of the people live below the poverty line, inflation is around 9 per cent and little progress has been made to facilitate the private sector development and investment needed to create employment.
A recent survey shows that up to 60 per cent of returnees are experiencing difficulties in rebuilding their lives. Large numbers of Afghans continue to migrate to cities inside Afghanistan or to neighbouring countries seeking livelihood opportunities. Disenchanted youths who return to communities which lack basic social services and work see little opportunity for their future.
“If we go by the book and international rules then Afghan refugees will never go back to their country,” said an official, adding that the federal government should come up with a decisive plan to resolve this thorny issue for good.
Police and security agencies warn that prolonged stay of the Afghans, who they say are now economic refugees, pose an even greater challenge to law and order and security. He blames the steep rise in crimes to Afghan gangs.
The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Chamber of Commerce & Industry has been saying that the presence of the Afghans in the province puts a strain on its infrastructure and its fragile economy.
A senior government official complained that the federal government granted extension to the Afghans without consultations with the KP which has shouldered the burden for more than three decades.
“The irony is that it is largely a KP problem and we are never consulted. It’s time to act and take a final decision to repatriate them to Afghanistan,” the official said.
The UNHCR spokesperson said the Afghan government with the assistance of donors had planned to build 48 reintegration sites for refugees who after return would get shelter. She said that work on 19 sites was in progress in different provinces of Afghanistan.