ISLAMABAD - Pakistan authorities say they have a plan to begin a phased repatriation of 1.5 million Afghan refugees within the next two years, ruling out the extension of the December 31 deadline for their legal stay in the country.
Since 2002, the U.N. refugee agency has facilitated the return of 3.8 million registered Afghans from Pakistan. The 1.5 million remaining constitute the largest protracted refugee population globally.
Pakistani officials estimate there are another one million undocumented Afghans living illegally in the country.
The refugees fled decades of violence in Afghanistan, where conditions continue to discourage them from joining a UNHCR-sponsored voluntary repatriation program.
A Pakistani spokesman, Tariq Hayat, told VOA a repatriation plan "approved by all stakeholders" will go to the Cabinet this week for approval. He said the proposal does not seek “extension or settlement" of the Afghan population in Pakistan beyond the December 31 deadline.
“There is no decision to extend their stay. However, we cannot send them overnight and we will be sending them in a phased program, which is likely to take something under two years. But at the end of that period they will all be out of here (Pakistan),” Hayat said.
Dignified return promised
Afghan and U.N. officials have called for Islamabad to not hastily expel the Afghans as next month’s deadline approaches. They insist Afghanistan is still fragile, embroiled in conflict and unable to absorb large numbers of returnees.
Hayat said the proposed plan ensures the refugees return to Afghanistan with “dignity” in an organized manner.
A senior U.N. official requesting anonymity told VOA the expiration of the December 31st deadline will not change the refugee status of Afghans under international laws and obligations Pakistan adheres to.
Last month, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told the UNHCR Executive Committee his government is focused on creating “pull factors” to make the country attractive for Afghans living in exile. He cited widespread poverty and years of corruption for discouraging Afghans from returning home.
President Ghani added that 36 percent of Afghans live in poverty and that has “stubbornly” not changed in nearly a decade.
“The refugees and the internally displaced will not believe that they can make their homeland home unless they feel that the state is an agent of a compact with its people,” Ghani said.
Security fears have intensified because of the unusual rise in fighting in Afghanistan this year that Afghan officials blame on the withdrawal of foreign combat forces.
Burden factor cited
Officials in Pakistan describe Afghan refugees as a burden on the national economy and host communities. They also say rising anti-Pakistan sentiment in Afghanistan is fueling anger against Afghan refugees.
Bilateral relations have deteriorated in recent months over allegations that Pakistan continues to support the Taliban insurgency, charges Islamabad rejects. Afghan officials suspect the refugee settlements are where the insurgents are trained and equipped to fight in Afghanistan.
Some critics say the tensions could be behind Pakistan’s push for the refugees to go back to Afghanistan. Young Afghan refugees complain that while they are “unwanted” in Pakistan for various reasons, authorities in Afghanistan “suspect” them of being Pakistani spies or Taliban fighters when they return home and apply for jobs.