ISLAMABAD: For almost three decades, Pakistan has played host to over 3 million Afghan refugees who first fled the fighting following the Soviet invasion in 1979. Over that period, the refugees have been a challenge for Pakistan's meagre resources and international aid agencies to upkeep. On Tuesday, when representatives of respective refugee departments met in Islamabad, it was decided that refugees will be repatriated or relocated voluntarily and gradually.
In 2009, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the UN had signed a Tripartite agreement according to which the stay of Afghan refugees in Pakistan had been extended to December 2012. With little over six months remaining in the expiration of that agreement, the future for millions of Afghans still hangs in the balance.
From Islamabad on Tuesday, the voice of agreement was on voluntary repatriation. It is an agreement which has existed on paper for years, but has been witnessed infrequently at any of the innumerable border crossings along the Durand line.
Dr Jamaher Anwari, the Minister for Refugees and Rehabilitation of Afghanistan is currently on a four-day visit to Pakistan. He held a one-on-one meeting with the Federal Minster of States and Frontier Regions (SAFRON) Engr. Shaukatullah Khan. The message out of that meeting was that of reasserting a deep and strong friendship between the two neighbouring countries.
At a meeting between a delegation of Afghan officials, Dr Anwari included, and officials from Pakistan's Ministry of Interior, SAFRON, Foreign Affairs, Commissioners of Afghan Refugees from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Punjab, the more prickly issues facing refugees were discussed.
Pakistan made its policy clear, that it remained committed to the rehabilitation and development of Afghanistan. But the 3 million plus refugees, to whom unconditional hospitality has been extended for over three decades, will have to be resettled elsewhere, albeit per guidelines of voluntarism and gradualism embedded in the Tripartite agreement.
Many Afghan refugees have been unable to return to their motherland due to continued strife in the years leading on from the withdrawal of Soviet Union. A civil war after the Russians left prevented repatriation. War returned following the 9/11 attacks. A decade later as international troops plan an exit, Afghanistan is still not secure enough for refugees to return.
For his part, Dr Anwari raised concerns over the problems facing Afghan Refugees in camps. He pointed out the limited facilities for education,health and police harassment of camp inmates. He also recommended that Hajj visas should also be issued to refugee pilgrims.
Engineer Shaukatullah assuaged him that all relevant departments will seek to resolve all issues identified by the Minister on top priority. However, he also reminded the Afghan Minister that Pakistan was faced with resource constraints. He further warned the Afghan delegate that recent security related incidents have led to a change in local perceptions towards the refugees.
The delegation was briefed that Pakistan was offering 2000 scholarships to Afghan students. Reintegration grant too had been increased from $100 to $150 in 2011.