PESHAWAR: As 1.4 million registered Afghans lost their refugee status in Pakistan on Sunday, Ministry of States and Frontier Regions (Safron) sought one year more extension to continue their legal stay in the host country.

Officials confided to Dawn that the ministry had sent summary to the Prime Minister’s Secretariat and suggested to extend stay of the refugees till December 2018.

The Afghans possessing Proof of Registration (PoR) cards have automatically lost their legal status.

“The government has no other option, but to give another extension to the PoR card holders,” said one official, who is dealing with the affairs of the refugees. He said that Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi was likely to grant extension to refugees on the recommendation of the cabinet within the next two weeks.

Officials say Safron has sent summary to Prime Minister’s Secretariat for approval

Afghan refugees have already availed extension in their stay five times. The government had introduced PoR card system for the registered refugees to legalise their stay and protect them from harassment at the hands of law enforcement agencies. The card system was introduced with the assistance of UNHCR in 2009.

The government has commitments with UNHCR and Afghan government that there would be no forced return of refugees despite expiry of PoR cards and would facilitate their return through the UN-sponsored voluntary repatriation programme.

Officials conceded that voluntary repatriation programme under which the UN agency paid $200 cash assistance to every refugee upon return to their country, was going very slowly. The cash assistance was $400 per head in 2016.

They said that hardly 48,000 refugees went back to their country under the voluntary return programme in 2017 as compared to repatriation of around 400,000 refugees in 2016. In addition, around 200,000 undocumented Afghan nationals also returned to their country in the same year.

The voluntary repatriation programme has been suspended since October last due to winter in Afghanistan. The return programme is likely to be started from March 2018. Senior officials were sceptical about the complete return of refugees from Pakistan in 2018.

“The government may give them (refugees) two more extensions after December 2018, keeping in view prevailing security situation in Afghanistan and economic opportunities for Afghans in the host country,” said a source.

On the other hand National Database Registration Authority (Nadra) has registered 670,000 undocumented Afghan nationals during the six months long drive across the country. The registration drive, which was launched in August last, would complete in first week of January. The authority has registered 350,000 Afghan citizens in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa of the total 670,000 registered people.

Nadra, Afghan Commissionerat and Afghanistan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation are jointly running the campaign. The registered people would get Afghan Citizen Card to legalise their stay in Pakistan for indefinite period. Nadra had planned to register one million undocumented Afghan nationals during the six-month drive.

Sources said that federal government might extend the registration programme for two months in an attempt to achieve the target of one million. In this connection, a meeting would be held in Islamabad on January 5 to extend the drive.

They said that the number of registration centres would be reduced. Currently Nadra has total 21 centres across the country including 11 in KP. Interestingly, Nadra despite large scale registration has yet to start printing of Afghan Citizen Cards. Registered Afghans have been issued tokens so far to claim their cards.

Published in Dawn, January 1st, 2018

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