Deadline of November 15 for Afghan refugees in Pakistan to secure documentation or leave
Hundreds of thousands of people could be deported
The fate of hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees living in Pakistan is hanging in the balance as they face a deadline to leave the country or be deported.
Currently, all undocumented Afghan migrants and refugees in Pakistan face an official deadline of November 15 to secure documentation or leave.
But pressure has been growing for the authorities to extend the deadline to allow more time for the returnees to transition peacefully back to Afghanistan.
On Monday, a meeting was held between lawmakers at Pakistan’s Ministry of States and Frontier Regions – which also oversees the Office of Chief Commissioner for Afghan Refugees – to discuss the deadline. A proposal for the next steps has now been submitted to the Prime Minister’s office, which will be discussed at the next cabinet meeting.
Even if the refugees are granted an extension to stay, the exodus has already begun.
So far this year, 210,998 undocumented migrants and refugees have returned to Afghanistan, with numbers soaring in recent months, according to the International Organization for Migration.
On top of that, there are also hundreds of thousands of registered Afghan refugees living in Pakistan, who face a deadline of March 31, 2017 to leave. The UNHCR says 338,056 registered Afghan refugees have returned so far this year – nearly six times higher than the number for the same period in 2015.
“The scale and pace of Afghan refugee returns from Pakistan has reached unprecedented levels,” the latest statement from the UNHCR says.
“The winter months are likely to pose further strain on Afghanistan’s already fragile absorption capacity.”
The strain on resources for returning refugees will be stretched further as tens of thousands of Afghan refugees are expected to start returning from Europe, under an EU deal made with Afghan officials last month to allow unlimited deportations of failed asylum seekers.
Harsh winter ahead
The Afghan refugees are returning to a fragile and war-torn nation, and facing a harsh winter living in tents outside Afghanistan’s main cities.
“There are severe strains on services and shelter, water, sanitation and food which is a major concern especially ahead of winter weather,” says Nicholas Bishop, Emergency Coordinator for the IOM in Afghanistan.
Many of the younger refugees were born in Pakistan and have never set foot in Afghanistan before.
“There have been a number of security incidents which made a bad perception of Afghans in Pakistan,” says Bishop.
He says Afghanistan has also mounted a campaign to urge Afghans to return home, promoting land allocation and “assistance packages.”
Some of the returning refugees are being forcibly deported, and others are returning voluntarily, according to Duniya Khan, Communications Officer at UNHCR in Pakistan.
“Spontaneous returns are those who have not been registered with UNHCR and their return could be voluntary or forced. In some cases, they are arrested and deported,” she says.
The recent arrest of Sharbat Gula, the “Afghan Girl” with green eyes who appeared on a famous National Geographic cover, highlighted the plight of Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
Now in her 40s, Gula was arrested for falsifying documents and staying illegally in the country. She was deported and arrived back in Afghanistan on Wednesday, where she was welcomed by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
Amnesty International last week condemned the decision to deport Gula, calling it a “grave injustice.”
“They are joining more than 1 million internally displaced Afghans who are struggling to survive in a country still wracked by conflict and crushing poverty,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
Millions of Afghans have sought shelter in Pakistan over the years as their country became ravaged by conflict, HRW added.