Pakistan Halts Afghan Repatriation, UN Seeks Sustainable Solutions

Pakistan Halts Afghan Repatriation, UN Seeks Sustainable Solutions

Islamabad, PakistanPakistan has halted Afghan repatriation. The United Nations refugee agency chief, Filippo Grandi, made this announcement on July 9, 2024, expressing appreciation that the “Illegal Foreigners Repatriation Plan” has been suspended and sought assurances that it would remain on hold, said a statement from the UN High Commission for Refugees. This followed his meeting with Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif in Islamabad.

Moreover, citing official sources, journalist Tahir Khan announced on July 10, 2024, that Pakistan has extended the stay of registered Afghan refugees by one year. This extension delays Afghan repatriation. The decision was made during today’s federal cabinet meeting. The Proof of Registration (POR) cards of 1.3 million Afghan refugees expired on June 30. The extension aims to address the immediate humanitarian needs of Afghan refugees in Pakistan. This decision comes amidst ongoing discussions about their long-term status and future prospects.

This follows Grandi’s three-day trip that concluded on July 9, 2024. His visit highlighted the challenges faced by both Pakistan, the host nation, and the Afghan refugee population itself.

Afghan repatriation was a key point of discussion during Grandi’s visit. While acknowledging Pakistan’s right to control its borders, the High Commissioner emphasized the importance of voluntary and dignified returns for Afghan refugees. Humanitarian organizations have voiced concerns about these repatriations. Speaking to Al Jazeera, Philippa Candler, the UNHCR representative in Islamabad, cautioned against blanket expulsions. She stated that many undocumented Afghan refugees in Pakistan are “in need of international protection.” Candler urged a closer look at individual profiles before any action is taken.

A Legacy of Hospitality Tested

Pakistan demonstrates a long history of hosting Afghan refugees, dating back to the Soviet-Afghan War. Currently, an estimated 2.1 million Afghans reside in Pakistan, with 1.3 million registered refugees and another 880,000 with legal status. The 2021 Taliban takeover saw a further influx of asylum seekers, straining Pakistan’s already burdened resources.

Prime Minister Sharif acknowledged Pakistan’s commitment to Afghan refugees. However, he also emphasized the socio-economic and security concerns arising from such a large population. Recent crackdowns on undocumented Afghan refugees have further complicated the situation. These crackdowns, attributed to security concerns and fueled by anxieties surrounding the presence of groups like the TTP, have raised alarm bells among human rights groups. Al Jazeera reports that since November 2023, an estimated 541,000 Afghans have been repatriated. The plan could see more than 800,000 forced to return in the coming months.

The repatriation of over 500,000 Afghans under a now-suspended plan has raised concerns about forced returns, with the UNHCR urging a focus on voluntary and dignified Afghan repatriation.

The TTP Factor and the Path Forward

The presence of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) operating within Afghanistan significantly complicates Pakistan-Afghanistan relations. Pakistan has repeatedly voiced concerns about the TTP launching attacks from Afghan soil. They have also raised concerns about the involvement of Afghan nationals in TTP activities within Pakistan. This issue has become a major obstacle in their bilateral relations. It has particularly affected their ability to find common ground on the refugee issue. Recently, Pakistan’s demands to the Afghan government have prominently included the extradition of a TTP commander. They also demand “verifiable actions” against all terrorist groups operating within Afghanistan.

In response, prior to the third Doha Meeting held on June 30th and July 1st, Afghanistan announced the relocation of TTP personnel from the Pak-Afghan border areas to Ghazni. This move resulted from backdoor diplomacy between Pakistan, China, and the Afghan Interim Government, with Pakistan agreeing to cover the resettlement costs.

The Path Forward: Shared Responsibility and Durable Solutions

The Prime Minister’s call for collective responsibility, echoed by Grandi during his visit, resonates deeply within the current context. Pakistan seeks greater international support, both financially and in providing resettlement opportunities for Afghan refugees. Specifically, Pakistan has called upon the international community to contribute financially to support the existing Afghan refugee population and increase resettlement quotas to alleviate some of the pressure on Pakistan’s resources. The UNHCR, for its part, has pledged continued support in meeting the basic needs of Afghan refugees and facilitating durable solutions.

Finding these solutions, however, requires a multifaceted approach. Voluntary repatriation, while encouraged by Pakistan, hinges on improved security and economic conditions within Afghanistan. The question remains whether Afghanistan, grappling with its own internal challenges, has the capacity to absorb a large influx of returning refugees and provide them with the necessary support to rebuild their lives. Meanwhile, resettlement to third countries remains a distant hope for many Afghan refugees, with resettlement quotas falling drastically short of the needs on the ground. The EU, for instance, resettled a mere 271 Afghan refugees in 2022, a stark contrast to the 42,500 the UNHCR has called for the EU to accept over the next five years.

Also See: Afghan Refugee: Do We Ever Belong?

The Role of International Community in Finding a Sustainable Solution

The international community’s role is crucial. Pakistan seeks greater financial and resettlement support to alleviate the pressure on its resources. The UNHCR advocates for a multi-pronged approach, including:

  • Voluntary Repatriation: This hinges on improved security and economic conditions in Afghanistan, a question mark considering the country’s ongoing challenges.
  • Third-Country Resettlement: Resettlement quotas currently fall far short of the needs, leaving many with limited options.
  • Durable Solutions Within Pakistan: This requires exploring possibilities for longer-term integration, such as access to education and employment opportunities.

Therefore, even though Pakistan has a commendable history of hosting Afghan refugees, the current situation necessitates international support. Consequently, the strain of a large refugee population coupled with Pakistan’s own security concerns demands a delicate balancing act. Prioritizing voluntary repatriation remains ideal, however, this hinges on a demonstrably improved security situation in Afghanistan. In addition, a significant expansion of third-country resettlement quotas is crucial to offer a viable option beyond Pakistan’s borders.

Grandi’s proposed stakeholder dialogue later this year, including government officials, aid organizations, and the private sector, offers a promising avenue to explore these solutions.

Still, finding a sustainable resolution to this protracted situation demands a collective effort from Pakistan, the international community, and Afghanistan itself. The focus must shift towards shared responsibility, durable solutions, and ensuring the well-being of the Afghan people in Pakistan. Ultimately, ensuring the well-being of the Afghan people in Pakistan necessitates collaboration between all stakeholders.

This news story is covered by Najam ul Hassan, Junior Research Associate at South Asia Times (SAT).


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