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Afghan diplomats seek extension for refugees in Pakistan

Afghan refugee children play in a slum in Islamabad, Pakistan. (Reuters)
ISLAMABAD: Afghan diplomats in Pakistan are trying to persuade the Pakistani authorities to extend the stay of registered Afghan refugees by up to one year, following the decision by the Pakistani Cabinet that the refugees must leave the country by Jan. 31.
On Jan. 3, the Pakistani Cabinet decided to grant just a one-month extension to the Proof of Registration (PoR) cards that allow registered Afghan refugees to legally reside in Pakistan. That extension period will expire at the end of this month.
Zardasht Shams, Afghanistan’s deputy ambassador in Islamabad, told Arab News on Saturday that Pakistan’s decision to repatriate nearly 1.4 million refugees in a single month is “practically impossible” to implement.
“We are seriously concerned at the decision,” Shams said.
“We have requested Pakistan to extend the stay of refugees to the end of 2018. But, at the same time, we are asking refugees to be ready for repatriation.”
He warned that refugees could face “harassment” by police after their PoR cards expire on Jan. 31.
Besides the 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees, Pakistan also hosts around 1 million unregistered Afghans and the process of their documentation is currently underway across Pakistan, Shams explained.
“In the meanwhile, we are meeting refugee elders to encourage them to repatriate,” he said.
The Afghan Embassy and government received the information through the media, Shams claimed, and “have not received anything in writing” from the Pakistani government.
He said the relevant departments in Afghanistan, including the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation, are also preparing in case there is a “huge exodus.”
“We are also in touch with UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency) and aid organizations in Kabul,” the deputy ambassador said.
An official from Pakistan’s States and Frontiers Regions Division (SAFRON), which deals with refugees, said the ministry and other stakeholders will prepare a “mega plan” for refugees’ repatriation if the government does not decide to grant an extension.
“It could take one year or even more time to repatriate 1.4 million refugees. We will approach the government to give us enough time to implement the decision,” the official, who asked to remain anonymous, told Arab News on Saturday.
He said the government has a stated policy that refugees will not be forced to leave, and that the repatriation policy will be implemented with care.
The Pakistani Cabinet reportedly suggested that the issue of early repatriation of Afghan refugees should be raised with UNHCR and the international community.
As part of Afghanistan’s diplomatic efforts, the ambassador to Pakistan, Omar Zakhilwal, met the UNHCR’s Pakistan Representative, Ruvendrini Menikdiwela, on Thursday to discuss the repatriation issue.
Although the Cabinet stated “Pakistan’s economy has carried the burden of hosting Afghan refugees for a long time and in the present circumstances cannot sustain it further,” many believe the decision was taken because of tensions between Pakistan and the US, and Pakistan’s concerns that militants may use refugee camps to evade capture.
Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif told Pakistan’s Geo television last month that Afghan militants had “entered the camps of Afghan refugees and they keep on changing positions and relocating.”
He also called for repatriation of the refugees and pushed the Trump administration to finance, at least in part, the repatriation and resettlement of refugees in Afghanistan.
Qaisar Khan Afridi, UNHCR spokesman in Islamabad, said the Afghan refugees in Pakistan “face an uncertain future concerning their continued stay.”
“This decision seemingly runs counter to the conclusions of the 29th Tripartite Commission meeting held on Nov. 30, 2017, which emphasized the need for at least a one-year extension of the PoR cards,” he told Arab News.
“UNHCR acknowledges Pakistan’s generosity in hosting one of the world’s largest protracted refugee populations for almost four decades. The UNHCR calls for international support for the Pakistani government’s efforts to continue to host the almost 1.4 million Afghan refugees currently residing in Pakistan,” he said.

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