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UNHCR in a dilemma over Afghans’ repatriation

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PESHAWAR: The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees seems to be in a quandary over how to tackle the issue of the voluntary repatriation of 1.5 million Afghan refugees as their legal status in Pakistan will expire at the end of December.

Head of the UNHCR sub-office Peshawar Jacques Franquin said in a press briefing on Tuesday that apart from voluntary repatriation, the world body was trying to convince Pakistani authorities to integrate certain number of registered refugees.

He said Pakistani authorities had been insisting for the repatriation of registered Afghans, whose Proof of Registration (PoR) cards would expire after December 31, 2015.

“We have been working to convince Pakistani authorities to open the door a little bit for the integration of a certain number of them (refugees), but they (Pakistani officials) say that is impossible and this is not an option,” he replied when asked about the future of registered Afghans beyond December 2015.

When asked about the proposed registration of undocumented Afghans by the government, Jacques Franquin said the UNHCR was not associated with the case of registration of undocumented Afghan nationals and had no intention to include them in the list of registered refugees.

Says Pakistan opposed to ‘integration’ of certain number of refugees

He said the UNHCR had been working for the last 35 years to find a durable solution to the repatriation of refugees and his organisation had partly succeeded by sending back over three million Afghans to their country since the beginning of the conflict.

The UNHCR representative said his organisation had been pushing Pakistani authorities to be flexible, to be compassionate and understand the situation.

He said the UN was looking for the durable solution of the refugee issue which included repatriation, integration in the country of asylum and resettlement in third country.

Jacques Franquin said the situation for Afghan refugees had been changing in Pakistan since the December 16, 2014 terrorist attack on the Army Public School and College Peshawar.

He admitted the refugees with valid documents were being harassed at security checkpoints.

The UNHCR representative said around 15,000 PoR card holders had returned to their country during the last three months which was encouraging as compared to the previous year. He said current developments on the political landscape of Afghanistan especially the new government was willing to receive its people.

“The UN agency is not asking for extension after extension for PoR cards holders, because it does not provide durable solution. Yes we are negotiating with the authorities to allow refugees to return safely and with dignity after expiry of the last date,” he said.

Decline in flow of donations for refugees in Pakistan and other hosting countries is another major concern for the UN agency which is affecting its global operations. UNHCR has stopped feeding refugees in Pakistan since 1997.

Jacques Franquin confirmed that funds were shrinking because of the donors’ fatigue. He said the ongoing conflicts in different regions had affected flow of funds for the refugees which had forced the UNHCR to decrease the budget for refugees by 7 per cent.

The UN agency is also concerned over harassment of the Afghans at the hands of law enforcement agencies particularly police and absence of specific legislation for refugees. Genuine refugees have either been forced to vacate homes or put restriction on their movement.

UNHCR protection officer Bashir Ahmad told briefing that around 700 PoR card holders were arrested across the country in the aftermath of terrorist attack on APS.

He said the UN agency provided legal assistance to these detainees and they were released.

Bashir Ahmad said cases of harassment and encampment had been reported from different urban centres particularly Punjab province.

He said refugees had been facing serious issues in Pakistan due to absence of national refugee laws in the country while Pakistan had yet to sign international refugee conventions.

The UNHCR protection officer said PoR cards issued to Afghans allowed movement of refugees from one place to another place in Pakistan, but they (refugees) were not allowed to open bank accounts, obtain driving licenses and buy properties.

“They are human beings and have some other needs and therefore, there is need for a national refugee law (in Pakistan),” he said, adding that the movement of registered Afghans was also restricted in some areas.

Bashir Ahmad said the UN agency took up this particular issue with the concerned authorities after that restriction on their movement was relaxed.

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