Pakistan grants 1-year extension to registered Afghan refugees; halts deportation for now

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Islamabad: The Pakistan government on Wednesday granted a one-year extension to registered Afghan refugees till June 30 next year, a respite for Afghan nationals living legally in the country who were facing deportation.

The decision comes a day after the visiting United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) Filippo Grandi met Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif.

“The federal cabinet approved a one-year extension of the validity of PoR (Proof of Registration) cards of 1.45 million Afghan refugees. Their PoR cards have been expired on June 30, 2024. The extension has been granted until June 30, 2025," the Prime Minister's Office said in a statement.

The decision, which was taken in a meeting presided over by Prime Minister Sharif, came amid reports that Pakistan had suspended the repatriation of Afghans without legal documents.

Last year in October, the caretaker government announced the decision to expel all illegal foreigners, which hit the Afghans living in Pakistan, especially hard.

The deportation of illegal Afghan refugees has been going on since the government's ultimatum for them to leave Pakistan by November 1 last year.

There is no official data but it is believed that about half a million Afghans living illegally left the country.

It is said that nearly 1.7 million illegal Afghans have lived in Pakistan for decades.

Meanwhile, the UNHCR welcomed the decision to extend the stay of Afghans, the Dawn newspaper reported.

“This is a big relief for refugees who were facing uncertainty and anxiety,” UNHCR spokesman Qaisar Khan Afridi told the newspaper.

He said the “generous gesture” demonstrated Pakistan’s commitment to the global refugee cause and showed “solidarity and compassion towards refugees at a time when displaced people need our support”.

Separately, the Foreign Office rejected the UNHCR chief’s claim that Pakistan suspended the repatriation of illegal aliens.

“This is not true. It may be noted that no such understanding has been given by Pakistan to the UNHCR, including in recent meetings with the High Commissioner for Refugees,” Mumtaz Zehra Baloch told the newspaper.

Earlier, UNHCR Commissioner Filippo Grandi, after his three-day visit on Tuesday confirmed the suspension of the repatriation plan after meeting with Pakistani leaders.