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Pakistan extends deadline for Afghan refugees awaiting third-country resettlement

Islamabad, Dec 14 (IANS) Caretaker Pakistan government’s Cabinet has approved new changes in the rules and regulations formulated to facilitate the return of illegal Afghan nationals residing in the country, extending the deadline from December 31 to February 29, 2024, along with a warning to impose hefty fines after the deadline ends.

The decision was taken by the Cabinet, which maintained that as per the new rules, “Afghan nationals, who have to evacuate to a third country and do not have any legal documents or processing fees, would be fined $400 for overstaying in Pakistan instead of $800″.

Caretaker Minister for Information, Murtaza Solangi, said that “the fine, after the due date, would be imposed at the rate of $100 per month with a maximum limit of $800”.

“These measures are aimed at encouraging the Afghans residing illegally in Pakistan to obtain legal documents or finalise evacuation agreements as soon as possible in a third country,” he said.

As per the United Nations Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) latest updates, at least 450,000 afghan nationals have returned to their home country since Pakistan announced initiation of the deportation campaign early October.

“At least 90 per cent of the total people who have returned to Afghanistan did so voluntarily,” claimed a government official.

However, UNHCR has expressed serious concerns over the primary reasons behind the decision of Afghan nationals to leave Pakistan.

UNHCR has maintained that one of the many reasons is the fear of arrest and mistreatment by the Pakistani authorities.

It is pertinent to note that the latest announcement by Pakistan government to extend the deadline comes after an important visit of US State Department officials to discuss the Afghan refugee issue. At the moment, about 25,000 Afghans require paperwork for resettlement in the United States.

Pakistan hosts the largest population of Afghan nationals, who have been living in the country since 1979 (Soviet War), and many of them have been living in the country without the necessary documents.

Pakistan has stated that currently there are at least 1.7 million illegal nationals living in the country. Terming them at ‘aliens’, the government announced that it would start evacuating all unregistered and illegal nationals, majority of whom belong to Afghanistan.

Pakistan saw a major influx most recently as an estimated 600,000 to 800,000 people took shelter after the Afghan Taliban took control of Afghanistan.

On the other hand, Pakistan has cited a substantial rise in terrorist attacks in 2023. As per statistics, there have been over 600 attacks till November 2023.

“14 out of 24 suicide attacks in the country were carried out by Afghan nationals,” claimed Interim Interior Minister Sarfaraz Bugti in October.

The Afghan Taliban have rejected the claims of its involvement or use of Afghan soil by other groups to spread terrorism in Pakistan, insisting that Afghan soil is not being used for cross-order violence.

However, Pakistan has stuck to its decision to track down, nab and send back illegal Afghan nationals to their home country as it cannot allow undocumented foreign nationals to stay any further in the country, and also because it has serious suspicions and intelligence reports that many fighters, suicide bombers and others who carry out terror attacks in Pakistan hide themselves in the refugee camps and are Afghan nationals.

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