Return of refugees: Government puts Afghan repatriation plan on hold

Cabinet decides to seek more input from stakeholders to reach a broad-based consensus on the issue

Riazul Haq November 03, 2016

ISLAMABAD: The federal government has put off a decision on crafting a comprehensive strategy for the repatriation of millions of Afghans sheltering in Pakistan for over three decades.

“The cabinet meeting postponed the decision in order to allow all political parties and stakeholders to be consulted so that a consensus can be reached,” Minister for States and Frontier Regions Lt-Gen (retd) Abdul Qadir Baloch told The Express Tribune.

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), Pakistan currently hosts around three million Afghan refugees. Of these, 1.6 million are registered.

The repatriation of Afghan refugees is a hot button issue between Afghanistan, Pakistan and the UNHCR. In order to defuse tensions, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had extended their stay till March 2017.

Law-enforcement agencies and the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government are strongly opposed to any measures that will prolong their stay in Pakistan. Citing economic constraints, the traders of Sindh and K-P have also shown their reservations about the Afghan refugees.

“We will soon start consultations with all stakeholders and reach an amicable solution,” said the minister.

The summary that was finalised on the basis of consultations with a select group of politicians carried several suggestions. One of them is allowing Afghan refugees to stay in the country until 2021.

JUI-F chief Fazlur Rehman, JI’s Dr Sirajul Haq, Qaumi Watan Party’s Aftab Sherpao and Awami National Pary’s Ilyas Bilour had favoured a five-year extension in their stay.

The summary also proposed allowing certain categories of Afghan nationals to live temporarily in Pakistan even after the passage of the deadline.

Through the proposed policy, the government would grant multiple entry visas to Afghan students, investors and those with Pakistani spouses -- including those entering the country for medical check-ups with only one attendant.

Similarly, skilled and unskilled labourers willing to work in the country would also seek the permission of the interior ministry and the chief commissionerate of Afghans. The issue of intermarriages has also become a problem -- including for the offspring brought up in Pakistan. According to the suggestions, all such Afghans who have spouses of Pakistani origin would apply for their stay through regional commissionerates which will route their requests through the interior ministry.

Another ministry official, who wished not to be named, stated that $400 per head from the UN for Afghans willing to return home and about 300kg per head wheat from Pakistan has turned out to be an alluring offer.

“The offer is a blessing for Pakistan as the voluntary repatriation has helped us reconsider certain plans of action,” he said. Incentives for returning businesspersons turned out to be an attraction as well. He said Kabul had announced business clusters and industrial plots for businesspersons who had been in Pakistan for over three decades.

The government also claims that extensive border management with Afghanistan and adherence to a strict deadline for repatriation have helped boost the voluntary return of Afghan refugees. In September, UNHCR official Qaiser Khan Afridi claimed that “about 100,000 Afghan individuals or more than 20,000 families” have been verified at the Voluntary Repatriation Centre in Chamkani, Peshawar.”

Published in The Express Tribune, November 3rd, 2016.



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