Pakistan has hosted millions of Afghan refugees since the 1980s when the resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan resulted in intense conflict in that country for nearly a decade. Later in 2001, when the US invaded Afghanistan, there was further instability and the refugee crisis continued to exert pressure on Pakistan’s economy and society. Repatriation took place but not at the expected levels. Now that the June 30 deadline for repatriation has passed, the Afghan government is yet to take a clear decision.
A recent meeting held between Pakistan, Afghanistan and the UNHCR to figure out how to achieve progress regarding the future of refugees remained inconclusive. Pakistan has assured that no “adverse action” will be taken against refugees whose Proof of Registration cards are about to expire. However, the fundamental issue of a repatriation plan remains pending. The Afghan economy is displaying scope for growth that could benefit from large numbers of repatriated Afghans with essential skills. Due to the economic conditions in Pakistan, it is becoming difficult to help refugees. With resources stretched, many Afghan refugees are falling through the cracks of social service departments. The UNHCR has not been able to raise enough funds to take care of this crisis and the burden has shifted to our government.
Earlier, there was a proposal to issue 150,000 Afghans long-term visas; however, this did not materialise. There was also a suggestion to issue visitors, business and student visas to both registered and unregistered Afghan refugees. Maybe this could be looked into again. Several Pakistani cities have witnessed demographic changes and social tensions due to their presence. The Afghan government seems too preoccupied to focus on repatriation. While Pakistan has shown commitment, it would be important for the UNHCR to step in and help Pakistan form an achievable agreement with the Afghan government, as well as assist in the upkeep of refugees and refugee camps.