ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - The United Nations on Thursday dismissed Pakistan’s assertions that Afghan refugees have become a source of terrorism in the country, urging the host government “not to adopt rushed solutions” for sending the displaced population back to Afghanistan.
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi made the remarks in Pakistan on the last leg of his three-nation trip, which included Iran and Afghanistan, to remind the international community of the importance of solving the protracted Afghan refugee crisis.
U.N. officials say that amid other refugee problems, the world has lost sight of the plight of millions of Afghan refugees still living in Pakistan and Iran.
Dwindling foreign assistance and rising terrorist attacks, they say, have also resulted in a concerted push from the Pakistan government to repatriate about 3 million Afghan refugees, including an estimated 1 million undocumented refugees.
During his visit to a UNHCR voluntary repatriation center near Peshawar, Grandi addressed refugees’ fears that they are being made scapegoats after attacks or violent incidents in the country.
He said that in meetings with Pakistani leaders, he stressed that the whole refugee population must not be blamed or penalized for such actions.
“My appeal is that, not only to the authorities but also to the local population, refugees, as you know, are not terrorists. And if a few of them have been involved in criminal acts, then they should be prosecuted through due process, but according to law, like any other person,” the UNHCR chief said.
Calls for deportation
Afghans in Pakistan are the second-largest refugee population in the world, most having fled the Soviet invasion in 1979. But in recent months, public calls for their deportation have spiked in the wake of worsening relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“The complication is that very often refugees get entangled in security situations besides being a component of a very complex relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is what makes matters very often more complicated,” Grandi said.
Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Nafees Zakaria on Thursday reiterated Islamabad’s concerns that Afghan refugee camps in the country have become “safe havens for terrorists.”
“There are still about 3 million Afghans in Pakistan. Besides having a bearing on the economy, some of the refugee camps have become a security risk as terrorists and militants use the camps as hideouts,” he said.
Pakistan has not yet announced whether it will renew the legal status of Afghan refugees due to expire June 30, which has raised fears and uncertainty among the displaced population. Grandi, however, said that in his talks with Pakistani leaders, he made the case for extending the deadline.
UNHCR officials say the number of Afghans voluntarily returning home has sharply declined this year, mainly because of an intensified Taliban-led insurgency and deepening economic crisis in Afghanistan.
About 6,000 Afghans have returned home this year from Pakistan, compared with nearly 60,000 last year during the same period, according to the refugee agency.