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Pakistan Vows Not to Push Out Afghan Refugees

Afghan refugees wait for their documents to go back to Afghanistan at the UNHCR's Repatriation Center in Peshawar, Pakistan on June 23, 2016.
Afghan refugees wait for their documents to go back to Afghanistan at the UNHCR's Repatriation Center in Peshawar, Pakistan on June 23, 2016.

A police crackdown in Pakistan has rounded up and deported hundreds of Afghan refugees in recent weeks. But authorities say Afghans with legal refugee status are not being targeted, nor will they be pushed out of the country.

The arrests have mainly taken place in the northwestern border province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, which hosts most of the estimated 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees, in addition to a sizable number of illegal settlers, according to the U.N. refugee agency. Many of them have fled persecution and armed conflict in Afghanistan.

Border tensions

The crackdown coincides with stepped up Pakistani calls for the international community to help in the repatriation of Afghan refugees, citing security concerns and financial constraints for hosting them for more than three decades. It also comes at a time when relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have deteriorated because of border tensions.

“We have hosted them for over 30 years, it is time for them to return home in conditions of dignity and honor,” said Tariq Fatemi, Pakistani prime minister’s key aide on foreign policy matters.

But he clarified the government is encouraging Afghan refugees to return to their home and has “no such intention of pushing them out or coercing them out.”

“But we are convinced that many of these refugees, particularly those who are undocumented, they could be harboring militants and others, and creating a law and order situation,” he said.

Afghan and Pakistani officials said Wednesday Pakistan has extended the stay of registered Afghan refugees for another six months, a day before the June 30 deadline was to expire.

Gradual relocation

The Pakistan prime minister's office says the concerned ministries have been instructed to work with the U.N. Refugee agency and the Afghan government for "gradual relocation of refugee camps in Pakistan to Afghanistan."

"In order to facilitate relocation and as a gesture of continued goodwill, Pakistan shall commit provision of wheat for the relocated camps in Afghanistan for a period of three years, free of cost," the statement added.

A UNHCR spokeswoman, Dunya Aslam Khan, said her agency has received no reports of any mass arrests or deportations of registered Afghan refugees. They are legally protected, she told VOA, and the agency is able to immediately secure release of documented refugees in case they are arrested.

During a visit to Pakistan last week, the UNHCR Chief Filippo Grandi dismissed Pakistan’s assertions that Afghan refugees have become a source of terrorism in the country.

In meetings with Pakistani officials, he stressed the whole refugee population must not be blamed or penalized if a few of them have been involved in criminal acts.

During his trip he also announced an increase in assistance packages for registered Afghan refugees families, who return to Afghanistan under the UNHCR facilitated voluntary return program.

The number of returnees under the program has dropped drastically this year to only 6,000 from around 60,000 in 2015.