ISLAMABAD: The government agreed on Thursday to reconsider the Dec 31 deadline for the return of Afghan refugees by committing to prepare a “realistic roadmap”.
The flexibility on part of the government, which had been adamantly opposed to an extension in the deadline, was evident in a joint statement issued at the end of a tripartite meeting involving the Afghan government, the Office of UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Pakistan and Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said during a meeting with Afghan Refugees Minister Sayed Hussain Alemi Balkhi: “The two countries should closely engage with the UNHCR for devising a realistic roadmap for repatriation of the refugees.”
Afghanistan, Pakistan and the UNHCR have agreed to work together for formulating a “comprehensive plan” containing “realistic timelines” for the repatriation of refugees, according to the joint communiqué of the tripartite meeting.
The earlier decision of not extending the Dec 31 deadline had been unilaterally taken by Pakistan in January this year. It is believed that recent improvements in Pak-Afghan ties have made Islamabad soften its position.
There are about 1.6 million registered Afghan refugees living in Pakistan. The number of unregistered refugees is believed to be close to 1m.
The new policy on Afghan refugees is to be formulated latest by August, the declaration said, adding that it would contain the return programme based on ground realities and the absorption capacity of Afghanistan.
The policy is likely to be presented for approval at the next meeting of the tripartite commission in Kabul in August.
The three sides further agreed to discuss the issue of renewal of proof of registration cards for the refugees expiring on Dec 31 and extension of the tripartite agreement during the consultations on the return policy.
There was further consensus on taking timely decisions on the issues related to the future of refugees so that “uncertainty towards the end of year” could be avoided.
Meanwhile, on the issue of documenting unregistered refugees, it was decided that a six-member committee comprising representatives of the Pakistan and Afghan governments would work out the modalities for the process. The committee has been given an ambitious timeline of documenting over 1m unregistered refugees in four months.
Afghan refugees have complained of increased harassment by Pakistani authorities in the aftermath of last year’s Peshawar school massacre, which forced thousands to return involuntarily.
The sudden increase in the number of returning refugees has burdened fragile resources in Afghanistan.
Satisfied over the flexibility shown by Pakistan on refugees’ return, Afghan Ambassador Janan Mosazai tweeted: “We are grateful to people and government of Pakistan for hosting millions of Afghan refugees for more than 3 decades. Voluntary, dignified, gradual return of all Afghan refugees home is a strategic priority for the Afghan government.”
A 20-point National Action Plan on counter-terrorism had also called for dealing with the issue of Afghan refugees and documenting the unregistered ones.
Pakistan, during the tripartite meetings, agreed to “continuing protection of refugees in accordance with international norms”.
Published in Dawn, March 13th, 2015