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Pakistan Extends Deadline for Afghan Refugees

U.N. officials say that Pakistan has agreed to extend indefinitely a deadline for the repatriation of the country's nearly two million registered Afghan refugees. Ayaz Gul reports from Islamabad the decision was made in a meeting between top Pakistani officials and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, at the end of his two-day visit.

Millions of Afghans have returned to their homeland since 2002 and the remaining refugees living in Pakistan were expected to be repatriated under a U.N-sponsored voluntary program by the end of next year.

But U.N officials say that the deadline is almost impossible to meet because poor economic and security conditions in Afghanistan have significantly slowed down the repatriation process in recent years. Many Afghans living in refugee camps in Pakistan come from areas in Afghanistan which have suffered the most from insurgent violence.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, met with senior Pakistani officials in Islamabad this week to review the current strategy.

A spokeswoman for the U.N refugee agency, Vivian Tan, tells VOA that the two sides agreed a lot needs to be done to improve living conditions in Afghanistan.

"I think the challenges do exist whether security or socio-economic problems. But we are very greateful to the Pakistan government for agreeing that repatriation must continue in a voluntary and gradual manner and that people should not be forced to return, that they decide for themselves whether or not to return," said Tan.

The spokeswoman says that under the new strategy, the Pakistani government has promised to avoid setting a hard deadline for their return. She says Afghan officials have faced difficulty resettling millions of returnees.

"More than five million Afghans have repatriated either with UNHCR help or by themselves since 2002 and, this has rather overwhelmed Afghanistan's absorption capacity. So, some of the returnees face problems finding jobs or they have land problems they have shelter problems. As much as possible UNHCR tries to help them. But in the longer term our main job in Afghanistan is to try to advocate for the returnees to be included in Afghanistan's national development plans," said Tan.

Pakistani authorities have recently closed several refugee camps across the country, saying Taliban insurgents are also using these facilities as shelters and for cross-border attacks into Afghanistan.

Pakistan has been receiving millions of Afghan refugees since the 1979 Soviet invasion. Spokeswoman Tan says Afghanistan's instability since then has discouraged many families from returning.

"Today, there are about 1.8 million registered Afghans in Pakistan and about half of this population actually was born and grew up in Pakistan so they have never seen Afghanistan. And they [refugees] tell us, this is part of the reasons, they are less willing to go back because they don't know the country anymore," she said.

She says that the United Nations and Afghanistan also plan to jointly hold an international conference in November in Kabul to seek more international support for the refugees returning to their homeland.