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Pakistan, Afghanistan Work to Return Refugees


Afghan refugee women wait to return to Afghanistan, at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office on the outskirts of Peshawar, Feb. 2, 2015. (REUTERS/Fayaz Aziz)

Afghan refugee women wait to return to Afghanistan, at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office on the outskirts of Peshawar, Feb. 2, 2015. (REUTERS/Fayaz Aziz)

Pakistan and Afghanistan have announced plans to work together over the next four months. The two sides will attempt to document about one million Afghans thought to be living illegally in Pakistan.

The documentation effort will help officials decide when all Afghan refugees in Pakistan can be expected to safely return to Afghanistan.

The United Nations estimates there are 1.6 million registered Afghan refugees. About one million of them are said to be undocumented. Pakistani officials have started blaming the refugees for a rise in criminal and militant activity in parts of the country.

The Pakistani government’s anti-terrorism operation included sending back both official and unofficial Afghan refugees to Afghanistan. Over the past three months, police have raided mostly Afghan neighborhoods and refugee camps. Those raids led to more than 50,000 Afghans returning to their country. Most of them are said to be undocumented Afghans whom Pakistani officials consider a security threat.

Pakistan wants all registered Afghan refugees to leave by the end of 2015. But the increase in returning Afghans has already worried the government in Afghanistan. The government is facing severe budget and security problems, partly because of less international aid.

However, recent high-level discussions in Islamabad may have eased tensions between the two countries.

Imran Zeb Khan is the Chief Commissioner of Afghan Refugees. He told VOA his group will lead the process of documenting more than one million Afghans in Pakistan. He says a committee of Afghan and Pakistani experts will oversee the process.

“The entire process of documentation will take four months, and within these four months when we document these one million (Afghans), there will be a window of opportunity for Afghans. Either they avail the reintegration grant being provided by the government of Afghanistan, inside Afghanistan and they return, or if they want to live in Pakistan they have to regulate that stay by having passports and travel documents and relevant visas to be issued to them.”

Mr. Khan says the effort will begin with an information campaign, urging Afghans to register themselves. He adds that the registration of these Afghans does not mean they will be considered refugees in Pakistan.

He also spoke about a police operation in the northwestern province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. The campaign has been directed at individuals who are unable to give their identities during search operations. But Mr. Khan dismisses suggestions the police action is directed at Afghans.

“Within that crackdown, there was a spontaneous return of unregistered Afghans back to their homeland. But let me make it very clear -- this security scan was carried out, is being carried out and will be carried out from time to time to see if there are people without documents and if they are living in suspicion conditions, security and law enforcing agencies will work on that.”

This month, the United Nations, Pakistan and Afghanistan agreed to launch efforts to ask global donors for money to help conditions inside Afghanistan. The Afghan government will lead the efforts. The government hopes to provide housing and jobs to returning refugees.

UN officials believe political security in Afghanistan and the country’s improved relations with Pakistan will help in efforts to resolve the refugee issue. However, a U.N. representative in Pakistan said there is still a need for the international community’s involvement. In the words of Indrika Ratwatte, there is a “window of opportunity that should not be lost.”

Pakistani, Afghan and U.N. officials are set to meet in Kabul in August to re-examine the refugee situation.

Pakistan has said it will honor its agreement to send the refugees back to Afghanistan voluntarily. But Pakistan has not said whether it will extend the December 2015 time limit for registered Afghans to return to their home country.

I’m Christopher Jones-Cruise.

Ayaz Gul reported this story from Islamabad. Ashley Thompson wrote it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

documentv. to create an official record of (something)

spontaneousadj. done or said in a natural and often sudden way and without a lot of thought or planning

raidv. to make a sudden attack

oversee v. to supervise; to direct (an activity or a group of workers)

voluntarilyadv. done or given because you want to and not because you are forced to

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