THREE decades after they began to seek sanctuary here from violent conflict, large numbers of Afghans remain on this side of the Durand Line. About 1.7 million registered refugees live in Pakistan today, and the government estimates that another million are unregistered. Many have low incomes and live in poor conditions in refugee villages and urban slums. At the same time, the burden on Pakistani hospitals, schools and housing, especially in struggling Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, cannot be ignored. The province has become reliant on foreign aid to maintain the infrastructure in rural areas where the concentration of refugees is high, and cities around the country have shouldered the burden on their own. Deforestation has resulted from the need to make room, and some camps are reported to have sheltered militants from Afghanistan. Both refugees and locals have suffered while no permanent solution has been found. The good news is that there does seem to be a plan in place: as per an agreement between the government and UNHCR, registration cards have been renewed until the end of 2012. Meanwhile, refugees will be encouraged to return voluntarily in return for incentive payments and facilitation by UNHCR on the other side. Around 150,000 will be able to extend their stay — businessmen and students through visas and female heads of households by beginning a naturalisation process. Attempts will also be made to identify unregistered Afghans and encourage their return. At first glance, then, the plan seems to be a comprehensive one addressing the needs and contributions of various subgroups within the refugee population.
The success of the scheme, however, remains highly dependent on the willingness of Afghans to return. The American invasion of Afghanistan led to a flood of voluntary returns — 3.6 million since 2002 — clearly indicating that Afghans are not averse to going home if incentives exist. But providing those incentives is up to the Afghan government, which has largely taken a back seat in the development of a repatriation strategy. While UNHCR and the Pakistan government have joined forces to look after, register and repatriate refugees, the Afghans’ own government has done little to welcome them back. Nor should we wait, as the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa information minister suggested on Thursday, for the restoration of peace in Afghanistan. While the country is still at war, there are relatively calm pockets where refugees could be resettled. The current administration there also enjoys billions of dollars in aid and on-the-ground support from the international community. While Pakistan will not, and should not, force refugees to leave, their own government must also make efforts to bring them back home.