AMIDST rising hostility towards Afghan refugees by elements in the state apparatus and sections of the wider population, the government has once again deferred a final decision on the status of Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
The background to the latest six-month extension in the validity of the 1.5m Proof of Origin cards of Afghan refugees here is dispiriting.
Last year, the federal government assembled a draft Comprehensive Policy on Voluntary Repatriation and Management of Afghan Nationals Beyond 2015, which, according to the UNHCR, recommended extending the validity of PoR cards until December 2017.
But cabinet approval was left pending, so when the PoR cards expired last December, the prime minister used his executive authority in January of this year to grant a six-month extension.
Six months later, with the prime minister convalescing in the UK and cabinet approval still pending, a further extension has been granted to PoR cardholders until the end of the year.
Meanwhile, Pak-Afghan relations have plummeted and the political mood domestically has soured on Afghan refugees, leaving their status more tentative than ever.
To be clear, forced repatriation — sending refugees back to Afghanistan without their consent — is not an option for Pakistan. That would not only violate the moral responsibilities of the state, but also likely fall foul of our international commitments.
With integrating the refugees into Pakistan resisted by too many influential quarters and third-country resettlement not a realistic option either, the focus must turn to what the UNHCR itself states is the preferred option for refugees generally: voluntary repatriation.
But the voluntary repatriation process has effectively stalled, likely because of a combination of security fears inside Afghanistan, lack of job opportunities there and the costs of repatriation.
In the first four months of this year, fewer than 3,500 PoR cardholders opted to return to Afghanistan.
Last year, a little over 58,000 PoR cardholders returned home. Reflecting the need to change incentives, the UNHCR announced earlier this week an increase in the assistance package for refugees voluntarily returning to Afghanistan.
Perhaps the next six months will also provide the time and space for the federal cabinet to approve the government’s draft policy — surely, ad hoc arrangements are no longer desirable or feasible when it comes to managing the issue of Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
Immediately, however, the government and the sensible among the political class need to fight against the rising tide of anti-Afghan sentiment inside Pakistan.
To condemn an entire class of people, as some hawkish elements here have wantonly and disgracefully done in recent weeks, as criminals and terrorist sympathisers is to take the country further down the path of isolation.
Moreover, Pakistan and Afghanistan have a great deal of challenges to confront in the year or two ahead — and few of those challenges can be dealt with by either country alone. Humaneness and the national interest must go hand in hand.
Published in Dawn, July 1st, 2016