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PESHAWAR: The Afghan government has formally requested Pakistan to give four years extension to 1.5 million registered refugees to legalise their stay till 2020.

“The legal stay of the registered Afghans will expire by the end of June,” sources said.

A well-placed source said that a high level delegation headed by Sayed Hussain Alemi Balkhi, Afghanistan’s Minister for Refugees and Repatriation, had requested to extend the stay of refugees for another four years.

The government had yet to decide whether to accept or reject the Afghan’s government request, the source said. “Afghanistan wants its citizens to remain in Pakistan till 2020,” he added.

Official says Pakistan ready to give extension to registered refugees till 2017

The request for yet another extension from the Afghan government came at a time when relations between the two countries are uneasy because of mutual suspicions, especially border disputes and cross-border activities of the militant groups.

Pakistan, which is hosting more than three million documented and undocumented Afghan nationals, had been granting stay to the registered refugees since 2009 on the request of Afghanistan.

Another official said that Pakistan was ready to give extension to registered refugees till 2017. He said that the offer was made during tripartite commission meeting in Kabul that discussed draft strategy for the repatriation of refugees. The ministry for state and frontier region had prepared the strategy.

Legal stay of registered refugees had expired in December 2015 and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif while using his discretionary powers gave six months temporary extension to refugees in January.

Afghanistan and UNHCR favour that refugees should not be forced to return to their country and that the process should be completed through UN-sponsored voluntary repatriation programme. However, officials said that four to five families were returning under the voluntary repatriation plan on daily basis. It would take decades to complete the process if it was left to voluntary repatriation, they added.

Officials said that prime minister was likely to extend stay of the refugees for another six months by using his discretionary powers if the case was not referred to the cabinet for approval.

“On the one hand the deadline is approaching while on the other hand Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is in London for treatment. If the government does make final decision then 1.5 million refugees would become illegal after June 30,” said the official, adding that prime minister had powers to give extension for another six months period without the approval of the cabinet.

The government had adopted tough policy regarding Afghan refugees after terrorists attack on Army Public School and College Peshawar on December 16, 2014. Under the 20-point National Action Plan, the government had decided to formulate a comprehensive policy to deal with the issue of Afghan refugees.

It was decided that undocumented Afghan nationals would be registered by the end of 2015 and National Database and Registration Authority was tasked to conduct the exercise throughout the country.

The plan could not the executed apparently due to differences between Safron and Interior Ministry. In the meantime, the government authorised law enforcers to start crackdown against undocumented Afghan nationals and deport them to their country after completing legal formalities. Thousands of Afghans had been arrested under the NAP.

Published in Dawn, May 30th, 2016