ISLAMABAD/PESHAWAR: The government on Wednesday granted registered Afghan refugees living in Pakistan — whose stay in the country was set to expire today — another six-month extension, as the UN refugee agency doubled its assistance package for families who opted to return voluntarily to Afghanistan.
The extension, applicable to over 1.5 million refugees who hold proof of registration (PoR) cards until Dec 31 this year, was announced by the Prime Minister’s Office on Wednesday.
According to the official announcement, the ministries of Foreign Affairs and States and Frontier Regions (Safron) “shall immediately engage with the UNHCR and the Afghan government for gradual relocation of the refugees camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan”.
“In order to facilitate relocation and as a gesture of continued goodwill, Pakistan shall commit provision of wheat free-of-cost for the relocated camps in Afghanistan for a period of three years,” the statement said, adding: “The quantum of wheat shall be determined by a certified number of refugees returning from camps in Pakistan and authorised daily entitlement according to the standards of [the UN’s] Food and Agriculture Organisation.”
Pakistan to commit provision of free-of-cost wheat for relocated camps in Afghanistan for three years
The Afghan government had reportedly requested Islamabad to give a four-year extension to registered refugees, to legalise their stay till 2020. The request came at a time when relations between the two countries were tense due to border disputes and disagreements over the cross-border activities of militant groups.
An official told Dawn the Safron ministry had intimated chief secretaries, police chiefs and the home departments of all four provinces, as well as Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), to direct the agencies concerned to refrain from detaining and harassing Afghan refugees who possess PoR cards.
These cards expired on Dec 2015, but the federal government had ordered that they be considered valid.
However, the government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which hosts 60pc of all registered refugees, has opposed the extension and police have already started arresting unregistered Afghan nationals across the province.
KP government spokesperson Mushtaq Ahmad Ghani has already said that the province could no longer bear burden of refugees and if the federal government gave them another extension, then they should be divided equally among the four provinces. The movement of refugees should also be limited to their camps, he said.
Meanwhile, a committee consisting of senior officials from the ministries of Safron, Interior and General Headquarters (GHQ) is said to be preparing an action plan for refugees’ repatriation and is expected to complete its work within a week, an official said.
Sources said there was a difference of opinion between the Safron ministry and the establishment; the former wanted a one-time extension until Dec 2017 instead of temporary relief, while the latter wanted no further extensions at all.
The Safron ministry maintains that it wants voluntary repatriation in an orderly, organised and respectable manner. “We just can’t push them over the border. Forceful expulsion of refugees will create an embarrassing situation for the country and our three decade-long investment will go to waste,” said one senior functionary.
Assistance package Separately, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi announced an increase in the assistance package for registered Afghan refugee families, who are opting to return to Afghanistan under the UNHCR-facilitated voluntary returns programme.
Commending Pakistan’s generosity for hosting one of the world’s largest protracted refugee populations, the high commissioner noted that “traditional approaches to solving protracted refugee situations were not enough, and therefore, there is a need for innovative solutions.”
He reassured the Pakistani leadership of UNHCR’s continued support in assisting the Afghan refugees. As an immediate step, he announced to double the existing individual assistance package for returnees from an average of $200 to $400 per person.
Published in Dawn, June 30th, 2016