ISLAMABAD: The federal cabinet will meet today (Wednesday) to decide the fate of Afghan refugees residing in the country, as Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif complained to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) that only 9,000 out of 70,000 Afghans — who had worked for the US and allies — had been sent to a third country over the three years.

A government official on the condition of anonymity told Dawn that the Afghan nationals who have a proof of residence (PoR) card might get relief, as the cabinet would decide about an extension in their stay for six months or one year. “The cabinet will decide whether to extend the proof of residence card issued to Afghan refugees for six months or a year,” the source said.

The development comes after UN High Commissioner for Refugees Fili­ppo Grandi called on PM Shehbaz on the last leg of his three-day visit to Pakistan.

In their meeting, the PM complained that only 9,000 out of 70,000 Afghans, who arrived in Pakistan after the fall of Kabul in 2021, had been sent to the third country in three years. The UNHCR had asked Pakistan not to repatriate these 70,000 Afghans as their lives would be in danger if sent back to Afghanistan. The government, therefore, decided that these 70,000 Afghans would be sent to a third country, but after three years, only 9,000 were sent to the third country. During the meeting, the UNHCR official called for bolstering efforts towards longer-term solutions for Afghans in Pakistan, and support for their host communities.

UNHCR official seeks urgent reset of aid model, timely extension of PoR card; promises to pave way for voluntary returns

During his three-day stay, Mr Grandi visited Peshawar and Haripur in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, meeting Afghan refugees in urban settings as well as in a refugee village. People he met shared a message of anxiety regarding their situation, but also of their desire to contribute to their communities in Pakistan, as well as eventually in Afghanistan, said the statement.

The high commissioner also called for the timely extension of the PoR cards, a critical identity document held by over 1.3 million Afghan refugees. He expressed appreciation that the “Illegal Foreigners Repatriation Plan” had been suspended and sought assurances that it would remain on hold. He called for Pakistan’s proud tradition of hospitality towards those Afghans with international protection needs to continue.

Recognising the challenges facing the country and hosting the refugees for over 45 years, Mr Grandi called for an urgent reset of the aid model towards solutions and responsibility sharing, including fostering new partnerships and developing innovative approaches to addressing the protracted displacement situation. “We need to seize this opportunity to accelerate solutions, and have a bigger, broader vision for the Afghan people in Pakistan,” he added.

The high commissioner offered to work towards a dialogue later this year, which would bring together key stakeholders (including government representatives, develop­ment actors, and the private sector) to develop a package of solutions for the benefit of Afghans living in Pakistan and the host country itself.

Mr Grandi also committed to redoubling efforts aimed at creating conditions conducive for returns to Afghanistan, including from the perspective of material conditions, access to services, job opportunities, as well as rights — paving the way for sustainable voluntary returns in the future.

In the meantime, as Pakistan continues to host some three million Afghans, all solutions need to be explored in addition to voluntary repatriation, including third-country resettlement and longer-term solutions within Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, July 10th, 2024

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