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PESHAWAR: The federal government is likely to extend the legal stay of over two million Afghan nationals, including 1.4 million refugees, in the country beyond Sept 30.

The Afghan nationals, including 1.4 million with Proof of Registration cards and 850,000 with Afghan Citizen Cards, will lose their legal status in the country on Sept 30 if they are not granted extension in stay.

Sources told Dawn that Kabul was not interested in the immediate return of its citizens and recently asked Islamabad to prolong their stay for six years.

Matter to be placed before cabinet for approval

They said the matter came under discussion during foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s visit to Kabul on Sept 15.

Officials said the ministry of state and frontier regions would give presentation to Prime Minister Imran Khan about the status of Afghan nationals and the matter would be put up before the federal cabinet for approval.

Currently, the country hosts 1.4 million registered refugees and 850,000 Afghan Citizens Card holders in addition to an unknown number of Afghan nationals, who live in the country illegally.

Prime Minister Imran Khan had announced last week that Afghans and Bengalis born in Pakistan would be granted citizenship to resolve the lingering issue. The statement drew strong reaction from the Sindh government and Baloch nationalists.

Officials said the federal government would grant extension to Afghans with PoR Cards and Afghan Citizen Cards.

The ACC holders were registered last year.

The relevant officials said another proposal was under consideration to grant extension to PoR card holders until Dec 2019.

The PoR card holders have already obtained extension in their stay seven times, while the ACC holders will get first extension after registration.

Officials said technically, the ACC holders also required extension and the government would have to decide their status.

In the wake of Islamabad’s border management policy with Afghanistan, the previous government had approved the visa regime for Afghan nationals, which is still pending with the interior ministry.

Under the policy, Afghan citizens will be eligible to get business and student visas.

Pakistan, Afghanistan and UNHCR had signed tripartite agreement under which the host country will not opt for forced return of registered refugees.

The refugees willing to return under the UNHCR facilitated voluntary repatriation programme will receive $200 cash assistance per head.

The voluntary return programme is going extremely slow and only 7,500 refugees have returned since last March.

According to the official statistics, 48,000 refugees returned to Afghanistan in 2017 compared to the repatriation of around 400,000 refugees in 2016.

The UN agency had increased cash assistance for every returnee from $200 to $400 in 2016 and thus, boosting the repatriation programme.

The voluntary return programme has been suspended from Oct to March next due to severe weather condition in Afghanistan.

The UN and Afghan government insist that the prevailing security and economic conditions of the war-torn country are not favourable for the return of refugees.

Published in Dawn, September 21st, 2018