Deadline looms for Afghan refugees in Pakistan
Islamabad, Pakistan – A deadline on the validity of legal refugee status for many Afghan residents in Pakistan is due to expire, throwing into doubt the futures of more than a million refugees, many of whom have lived in the country for decades. The deadline is due to expire on Wednesday, with Pakistan’s federal cabinet expected to discuss the matter during a weekly meeting. Separately, Afghan Interior Minister Wais Ahmad Barmak and intelligence chief Mohamed Masoom Stanekzai also arrived in the Pakistani capital Islamabad for talks on Wednesday. Pakistan has extended the validity of Afghan refugees’ Proof of Registration’ (PoR) cards at least six times in the past, but the last extension - granted on January 3, days after the refugees’ status expired - was for only a month, the shortest ever awarded. “Pakistan’s economy has carried the burden of hosting Afghan refugees since long and in the present circumstances cannot sustain it further,” read a government statement released after that extension. The refugees have become a bone of contention in the increasing souring diplomatic relations between Pakistan and the United States, with the South Asian country accusing them of being a “security risk”. On Thursday, following a US drone strike in the northwestern Pakistani district of Kurram, Pakistan’s military said that the target had been hiding in an Afghan refugee camp. ”This validates Pakistan’s stance that left over terrorists easily morph into Afghan refugees’ camps/complexes,” the military said in a statement. “Thus their early and dignified return to Afghanistan is essential.” Refugee push factors Pakistan is home to at least 1.38 million registered Afghan refugees, according to the UNHCR. There are at least another million refugees estimated to be outside the formal refugee registration system. “The 2.3 million refugees in Pakistan, it is impossible for all of them to go back immediately,” says Baryali Miankhel, the president of an Afghan refugee welfare organisation in the northwestern province of KhyberPakhtunkhwa, where most reside. “We have told the Pakistani government this.” Last year, more than 150,000 refugees left Pakistan to return to their native Afghanistan. Of those, more than 59,000 were registered refugees assisted by the UNHCR, while the rest either spontaneously returned or were deported by Pakistan. UNHCR says it is concerned at the increasingly shorter durations of extensions being offered to Afghan refugees regarding their legal status in the country.