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Pakistan's plans to repatriate Afghan refugees could displace 3 million

22 July, 2012

LAHORE: Pakistan plans to cancel refugee status for all Afghans living in the country at the end of this year, leaving some three million displaced people the world's biggest cluster of refugees facing possible expulsion to a country that many barely know.

Pushing the refugees into Afghanistan would be likely to create a new crisis for that country, already struggling with an insurgency and an economy almost entirely dependent on the western presence and the illegal drug trade. The west is pressing Pakistan to reconsider its policy, which puts it at odds with the United Nations and other international partners. The international community and the Afghan government have no strategy prepared to deal with any such influx of people.

However, Pakistan's top administrator in-charge of the Afghan refugee issue, Habibullah Khan, the States and Frontier Regions Ministry secretary, told the Guardian that Islamabad would not relent. "The international community desires us to review this policy but we are clear on this point. The refugees have become a threat to law and order, security, demography, economy and local culture. Enough is enough," he said.

"If the international community is so concerned, they should open the doors of their countries to these refugees. Afghans will be more than happy to be absorbed by the developed countries, like Western Europe, USA, Canada, Australia."

There are currently 1.7 million Afghan refugees registered in Pakistan more than half of them under 18 of whom 630,000 live in camps. A further one million are estimated to be living in the country unregistered and therefore illegally.

"After December 31, there is no plan to extend the validity of the POR [proof of registration] cards of Afghan refugees. Those currently registered will lose the status of refugees. They will be treated under the law of the land. The provincial governments have already been asked to treat the existing unregistered refugees as illegal immigrants," said Khan.

Khan declined to spell out what would happen to the refugees after the end of the year but, if the policy sticks, they will all be in the country illegally and liable to be thrown out.

Earlier this year, Baroness Amos, the former British cabinet minister who is now the UN humanitarian affairs chief, said she was "appalled" by the conditions for returning refugees, after visiting a camp for them in Kabul. Once they reach Afghanistan, they are entitled to a one-off $150 per person from the UN.

Neill Wright, the Pakistan representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said that the UN would still recognise registered Afghans in Pakistan as refugees after the end of 2012 under international law, "until a durable solution can be found".


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