Afghan refugees’ return witnesses sharp decline in current year

Published November 7, 2020
The UNHCR-sponsored voluntary repatriation of registered Afghan refugees to their country witnessed a sharp decline in the current year as only 1,000 individuals have so far returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan. — File photo
The UNHCR-sponsored voluntary repatriation of registered Afghan refugees to their country witnessed a sharp decline in the current year as only 1,000 individuals have so far returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan. — File photo

PESHAWAR: The UNHCR-sponsored voluntary repatriation of registered Afghan refugees to their country witnessed a sharp decline in the current year as only 1,000 individuals have so far returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan.

The number of refugees who repatriated from Pakistan in the corresponding period last year was 1,597 individuals.

Officials attributed the “record” downturn in the return of refugees to Covid-19 pandemic in the region and deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan.

The UN refugee agency has now extended voluntary repatriation process till the end of December following decrease in the number of refugees returning to their country.

UNHCR spokesperson cites Covid-19 as main reason for the downturn

“For the first time the lowest number of Afghan refugees returned to their country since the beginning of voluntary repatriation from Pakistan,” said an official, adding that despite payment of cash assistance of $200 per person for meeting their immediate humanitarian needs, refugees did not want to go back to their country.

The UN agency usually suspends voluntary repatriation process in October every year because of winter in the refugees’ home country and restarts the programme in March.

The UNHCR facilitates repatriation process twice a week (Monday and Tuesday) owing to the pandemic.

Pakistan currently hosts over 1.4 million registered refugees in addition to near 600,000 Afghan citizens’ card holders who do not enjoy the status of refugees.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has been providing shelter to the largest population of Afghan nationals, including registered refugees, followed by Balochistan.

The refugee agency spokesperson, Qaiser Khan Afridi, told Dawn that 1,000 Afghans (around 245 families) had returned to their country since March under the voluntary repatriation programme.

He said refugees returned to their country via Torkham and Chaman border crossing points in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, respectively.

“The main reason for decline in return of refugees is the pandemic,” said the spokesperson. He said it had been decided to continue the repatriation process till December. The UNHCR has facilitated voluntary return of 4.4 million Afghans from Pakistan since 2002.

Meanwhile, legal status of over 1.4 million registered refugees in Pakistan also hangs in the balance after expiry of Proof of Registration (PoR) in June. Officials said the Pakistan government had yet to make a decision about renewal of PoR cards to validate stay of the refugees.

They said that future of the registered refugees was uncertain because of expiry of the PoR cards.

The spokesperson said the UN agency had taken up the matter with the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions and the Commissionerrate for Afghan Refugees, requesting for giving further extension to the refugees.

He said the ministry had submitted its recommendations and the UN agency was hopeful that the decision would be taken very soon.

He said extension in PoR cards would be a big relief for the refugees who were facing uncertainty as validity of their cards had already expired.

He said that UNHCR always favoured long-term extension of at least a year in PoR cards. Pakistan has been renewing PoR cards every year for the last nine years.

The federal government had in 2017-18 also issued Citizen Cards to 600,000 Afghan nationals who did not enjoy the refugee status.

ACCs facilitate undocumented Afghans to temporarily stay in Pakistan until they return to their country to obtain a passport and Pakistani visa.

Besides, a sizeable number of undocumented Afghan nationals are also residing in Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, November 7th, 2020

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