PESHAWAR: The stalemate in the Pakistan-US relations has brought millions of Afghan nationals, including 1.4 million registered refugees, into the spotlight again as the federal government has decided to prepare a contingency plan for their return.
A senior official in the State and Frontier Region (Safron) ministry told Dawn that the government would not give another extension to registered refugees for their stay in the country.
“There will be no extension after January 31 and they (refugees) will have to go to their country,” he said.
The legal stay of the refugees expired on Dec 31, 2017, after which the federal cabinet extended their stay in the country by one month only.
Official insists govt has decided to prepare contingency plan for refugees’ return
According to the initial plan, the Safron ministry had suggested to grant one-year stay to registered refugees.
The sources said the National Security Committee had made the decision about not giving one year extension to Afghans.
Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa in a recent meeting told Centcom Commander Gen Joseph Votel, “Pakistan is undertaking multiple actions through Operation Raddul Fasaad to deny any residual capacity to terrorists of all hue and colour for which return of Afghan refugees is an essential prerequisite.”
Chief Commissioner Refugees Saleem Khan said the relevant authorities would prepare a return plan before putting it up to the federal cabinet for approval.
He said the refugee repatriation plan would be worked out after consultation among stakeholders.
The official estimates show that over 2.5 million Afghan nationals, including 1.4 million registered refugees, are living in the country.
In addition, the government has registered 700,000 undocumented Afghans during the six months long campaign, which began in last August.
Sources in the Safron ministry said the contingency plan would be framed after consultation with the authorities of the four provinces and political leadership.
One official said the return of millions of Afghans was not an easy task and that it required at least one year.
“Under the tripartite agreement, the government cannot force them (refugees) to leave Pakistan,” he insisted.
The official said the proposed contingency plan would provide a roadmap for the dignified return of Afghan nationals.
The contingency plan will have three parts, including preparation of lists, identification of refugee hosting areas and how to send them back.
The bad days for Afghan nationals, including those holding the Proof of Registration cards, began after US President Donald Trump’s diatribe against Pakistan on the eve of the New Year. The Pakistan-US relations reached the lowest ebb following Trump’s statement.
The federal cabinet’s unilateral decision worried Afghan citizens and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Elders of the refugees in Peshawar expressed resentment at it and formed a ‘shoora’ to begin a campaign to pressure the government for review.
“The return of refugees is not possible until peace is restored in Afghanistan,” said Malik Abdul Ghafar Shinwari, member of the shoora.
He said the elders would meet senior officials, politicians and other stakeholders to seek their support for extending stay of refugees in the country.
“Pakistan must give three to five years extension to refugees,” he said, adding that the situation in Afghanistan was not conducive for living a normal life.
The Afghan elder claimed that 400,000 refugees had gone to Afghanistan last year under the voluntary return programme of which 100,000 had come back as the Afghan government did not provide them with the required facilities.
He said officials of the Afghanistan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation were in contact with their counterparts in Islamabad and a high-level delegation would come to Pakistan to discuss the issue.
The UNHCR has also expressed concern about the cabinet’s decision.
Spokesperson for the UN agency Qaiser Afridi in a text message said the UNHCR was concerned about how the decision to extend the PoR cards for a one month might affect the almost 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees.
”There are nearly 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees, who face an uncertain future concerning their stay,” the UN body said.
It said the decision also seemingly countered the conclusions of the 29th Tripartite Commission meeting held on Nov 30, 2017, which emphasised the need for at least one year extension of the PoR cards.
The UNHCR is facilitating voluntary repatriation programme of Afghan refugees and pays them $200 to every refugee upon returning to Afghanistan.
The UN agency said almost 60,000 registered Afghan refugees opted to return home under the voluntary repatriation programme.
The voluntary return programme has been suspended due to winter since October 2017 and likely to start in March next.
Published in Dawn, January 17th, 2018