The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is calling on the government of Pakistan not to hastily expel Afghan refugees, even as a deadline for their legal stay in the country approaches.
The question of how to deal with 1.7 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, along with at least another one million undocumented Afghans, has become increasingly politicized, with mounting pressure to find a solution to the largest and most protracted refugee crisis in the world.
But there is a shrinking window of time to do so. Analysts say the government of Pakistan appears unwilling to extend the Proof of Residency [PoR] cards issued to Afghan refugees past their expiry at the end of this year, raising fears that they may be forced to return to an Afghanistan that is still fragile, embroiled in conflict and unable to absorb large numbers of returnees.
“I’m hoping that sanity will prevail,” UNHCR representative in Pakistan Neill Wright told IRIN during an interview in Abu Dhabi, where he was meeting regional counterparts to discuss the implementation of a new strategy for Afghan refugees, adopted last month in Geneva.
He cautioned that any large-scale movements could further destabilize Afghanistan if done in an “ad-hoc” or “hasty” manner: “The pace at which it happens is something that needs to be organized.”
To this end, UNHCR has helped Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran agree upon the so-called “Solutions Strategy”, a regional approach to managing the refugee caseload which includes improving conditions in areas of origin in Afghanistan so returns can be more feasible.
But this strategy will take time: Wright and colleagues are yet to introduce to the governments in their respective countries a proposal to create a quadripartite regional steering committee that would coordinate a plan of action for the strategy and report back to national steering committees.
In any case, the strategy will not accommodate all the refugees and some NGOs have questioned whether it is the best approach.
Other options have their own constraints. The government of Pakistan has not delivered on initial promises to consider naturalization or legal migration for some refugees; and resettlement to a third country is only realistic for a small minority of the refugee population.
|It’s going to be a tough two or three years… I’m hoping sanity will prevail|
Meanwhile, Pakistan is increasingly exerting subtle pressure on refugees to leave, and ordering undocumented Afghans to get out, with the latest warning telling 400,000 people in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province they would be arrested or deported if they did not leave the country by 25 May. According to UNHCR monitoring at the border, this has not yet resulted in higher numbers of returns, which have been following a general downward trend for the last decade.
Wright said Pakistan is keen to see more refugees return to Afghanistan before the withdrawal of international forces in 2014 - likely to be another destabilizing moment in Afghanistan’s history.
In short, an immediate, comprehensive solution is hard to envisage.
“It’s going to be a tough two or three years,” Wright said.
Still, he insisted that Afghan refugees would keep that label under international law no matter how the government of Pakistan defines them.
“They will still be refugees on 1 January 2013 whether their PoR card is valid or invalid.”
Asked what would happen if the PoR cards expired, he answered: “I’m not expecting very much to happen at all.”
Hope for organized returns
UNHCR would continue to lobby the government to provide some form of documentation to the refugees. If Pakistan refused, it could issue them UNHCR refugee cards instead.
But recently, and at the highest levels, Pakistan has promised to continue to respect the principle of non-refoulement; to continue to ensure that repatriation is voluntary and dignified; and to maintain asylum space for new arrivals in Pakistan, Wright said, giving him hope there would be no mass expulsions and refoulement as of 1 January.
He said there are ongoing discussions between both governments to make sure returns are organized and happen at a pace that Afghan officials can handle.
The refugee caseload in Pakistan is compounded by an increase in the number of internally displaced Pakistanis - now 700,000 people, due to recent military operations in Khyber Agency, in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, along the border with Afghanistan. In the midst of a global financial crisis, humanitarian operations in Pakistan have had to compete for funding with other crises caused by the Arab Spring and the drought in East Africa.