Afghan refugees

THERE may be millions of Afghan refugees in Pakistan a million and a half officially registered and perhaps twice as many unregistered for decades now, but the state here has been unable to resolve humanitarian considerations on one side and political and emotive aspects on the other. Now, with the Proof of Registration cards given to Afghan refugees over a decade ago set to expire on Dec 31, the question of what to do next once again confronts the state. With a meeting of the Pakistan-Afghanistan UNHCR tripartite scheduled for August, the three long-term solutions will once again be on the table: voluntary repatriation (returning to Afghanistan), resettlement (settling permanently in a third country), and local integration (remaining in Pakistan). In the past, all hard decisions have been avoided by simply extending the expiration date of the POR cards done thrice now. This time, there may be an attempt to try and speed up voluntary repatriation, but conditions in Afghanistan suggest a large-scale voluntary return over the next year is highly unlikely.

That leaves the option of simply extending validity of the POR cards once again or, as a UNHCR official in Peshawar mooted at a news conference on Tuesday, looking towards some kind of integration of a limited number of Afghan refugees. The idea behind integration is not to grant citizenship to Afghan refugees with PoR cards, but to accept the reality that being resident in Pakistan with only the barest of legal status leaves them vulnerable to all manner of exploitation here. From corrupt officials in the state apparatus to having to resort to bribery when interacting with even the private sector in search of basic services, Afghan refugees` hardships are compounded at every turn.

However, the very suggestion that they be granted more rights here is likely to trigger a political firestorm in the country, given that the long-prevailing national sentiment is for the Afghan refugees to leave Pakistan at the earliest. Anything that creates a further incentive for the refugees to stay in Pakistan is not just likely to be rejected, it may exacerbate tensions between the Afghan refugees and the communities amidst which they live. The best idea, then, as ever remains to create the conditions for the refugees themselves to choose to return to Afghanistan. Barring that, the default option of extending the validity of the PoR will only further defer resolution of a decades-old issue.

Dawn Editorial