Pakistan is facing new inflows of asylum seekers from neighboring Afghanistan, following the Taliban's takeover of Kabul, according to the UN refugee agency.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency on the eve of World Refugees Day, observed on June 20 every year, the spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Pakistan, Qaiser Khan Afridi, said more than 250,000 Afghans seeking asylum have trickled into Pakistan since January 2021.
"UNHCR is aware that over 250,000 Afghans seeking asylum are reported to have arrived in Pakistan since January 2021, however, the overall number of Afghans with international protection needs is likely to be higher," said Afridi.
"We are currently discussing with the government of Pakistan the way forward on registration and documentation of asylum-seekers, predominantly from Afghanistan," he said.
Hundreds of thousands of Afghans fled to Pakistan and Iran since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban last August.
Many, who worked or associated with the previous regime, left the country, even before the capture of Kabul fearing a backlash from the hard-line group, with others finding it an opportunity to emigrate to the US or Europe.
The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that many top officials in the US-backed previous Afghan government had started purchasing expensive properties in the US and other countries in the final years of the war, which ended in an unexpected surrender of the Afghan National Army.
Last week, the federal cabinet approved a policy under which, Islamabad will issue transit visas to the Afghan asylum seekers to enter the country legally to complete paperwork for further international travel.
No increase in repatriation
Much expectedly, there has been no increase in the number of Afghan refugees returning to their homeland after the Taliban's takeover, said the UNHCR.
Afridi said only 850 refugees (185 families) have returned to the war-torn country since the beginning of 2022 under the commission's voluntary repatriation program.
The figure, he added, is slightly higher compared to repatriation during the same period last year.
"Upon return, repatriated families receive a grant to support them as they rebuild their lives and communities. The UNHCR provides financial support of $250 each to the repatriating families," he added.
Pakistan is currently hosting 1.3 million documented and almost as many undocumented Afghan refugees. Of them, a majority are residing in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which serves as a gateway to Afghanistan.
Balochistan and Karachi also host a large number of refugees.
"UNHCR advocates that returns need to be voluntary and take place in conditions of safety, dignity and security," said Afridi.
Saleem Khan, the chief commissioner for Afghan refugees, said the repatriation process remained sluggish because of coronavirus-related restrictions in the past two years, aside from economic and political developments in Afghanistan.
"The process has seen a kind of resumption over the past one week but it's premature to predict the future trend. It will take another couple of months to determine that," he told Anadolu Agency.
No plans to repatriate
Hunched on plastic chairs outside a cafe and enjoying green tea at a refugee camp in Karachi, a group of Afghan youths had no plans to return to their homeland.
Located on the northern outskirts of most populous city, the run-down locality with limited access to health care and basic sanitation is home to nearly 250,000 refugees who were forced to flee due to a lingering conflict.
Karachi is home to more than 300,000 Afghan refugees, most of whom work as laborers or own small shops in Pashtun-dominated areas.
Maulana Rahimullah, who migrated to Pakistan and made Karachi his new home in 1980 following the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, cites the economy and unwillingness of young refugees as reasons behind a snail-paced repatriation despite "much better" law and order in the war-hacked country.
"Although our major concerns, which were about law and order, and a possible civil war after the Taliban takeover, have been addressed, still a brute majority of refugees have no plans to return, at least in the near future," Rahimullah, who hails from Afghanistan's northeastern Takhar province, told Anadolu Agency.
"Here we often get work to make a living. But that's still not the case in Afghanistan," he said.
The father of six, Rahimullah said the younger generations born and raised in Pakistan have little interest to go back to their homeland.
"Even if I want to go back, my children won't let me go. For them, this (Pakistan) is their country," he said.
According to UNHCR, more than 4.4m refugees have been repatriated to Afghanistan since 2002, but many, including hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers, returned to Pakistan due to violence, unemployment and a lack of education and medical facilities.
Huzaifa bin Nauman, 17, along with his family, came to Pakistan months ago from the northern Mazar-i-Sharif region.
He claimed that instead of returning, Afghans are trickling into Pakistan following the Taliban's takeover.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Nauman who has not been able to get admission to a local school due to his missing educational records, said several families of his tribe that had repatriated to Afghanistan, have returned to Pakistan in recent years under pressure from youths, who do not want to live in the war-stricken country.
Echoing his views, Syed Mustafa, who runs a school for children of Afghan refugees in the Sohrab Goth area of Karachi, said: "What's there (in Afghanistan) for youths, especially girls. Schools and colleges (for girls) are closed and businesses are running low. Here, they can get both work and study."