Pakistan plans to start the second phase of repatriation of documented Afghans

Even as there is confusion over the exact number of undocumented Afghans sent back to their country from Pakistan, preparations are underway to start the second phase of repatriation targeting nearly a million documented Afghans, a media report said on Monday.

The Ministry of Interior had already issued directives to district authorities and police to expedite mapping and collect data on the whereabouts of Afghan Citizen Card (ACC) holders. reported citing documents it had accessed and an official briefed on the developments.

Pakistan launched the first round of repatriation of what it called undocumented foreigners in November last year.

No date has been announced yet, but the official said the campaign to repatriate hundreds of thousands of ACC holders could begin early to mid-summer, following federal government approval.

We have already started mapping, Abid Majeed, Additional Chief Secretary of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, told the newspaper.

After Ramazan, the pace will increase and we hope to complete the survey before April 30, he said.

According to UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, there are 2.18 million documented Afghan refugees in Pakistan. This includes the 1.3 million refugees who hold a Certificate of Registration (PoR) according to the 2006-2007 census, as well as another 8,80,000 refugees who were issued an ACC after a registration round in 2017.

The collapse of the civilian government in Kabul following the return of the Taliban in August 2021 prompted a new influx of concerned Afghans to Pakistan. Officials estimate their numbers somewhere between 6,00,000 and 8,00,000, some with valid travel documents but an uncertain future.

After the October 31, 2023 deadline, ahead of the first drive, no official data has been released on how many of the estimated 1.7 million undocumented Afghans have left for their country since November 2023, although this figure is likely to have vastly lagged behind what is now expected. considered a grossly exaggerated number.

But according to informed sources, the total number of undocumented Afghans who returned to Afghanistan through Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces in the first round is around half a million.

Amid mounting pressure to expedite the repatriation of undocumented Afghans despite low staffing levels at departure, officials shortly afterwards approached the Ministry of the Interior, questioning where the claim of the 1.7 million undocumented Afghans came from and asking to confirm this number.

No one knows how many of the 8,80,000 ACC holders remain in the country, or how many of them have chosen to return to Afghanistan voluntarily.

Officials say they have approached the Ministry of Home Affairs to double-check the figure with the National Database and Registration Authority.

Also, the exercise of distinguishing between people with ACCs and those with HvRs could prove quite difficult and put further strain on the already strained relations between the two neighboring countries.

Taliban chief spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, who had called the repatriation of undocumented Afghans unacceptable, recently struck a more conciliatory tone in an interview with Tolo News, calling for greater leniency for refugees from Pakistan.

However, undeterred by the criticism from Kabul and the concerns of human rights organizations and the UN, Islamabad appears to have decided to continue with its repatriation program and further extend it to even documented Afghans.

The repatriation of Afghan refugees, which was part of the National Action Plan, has now also found its mention in Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s 100-day work plan.

Accordingly, all provinces and the so-called government of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir have been asked to complete the mapping and verification of ACC holders by March 25, 2024.

But officials say the mapping could take longer, and it could take at least another month to complete the process.

The federal government is expected to announce a date for voluntary repatriation with a month’s gap once the mapping study is completed, an official said.

No decision has yet been made, nor have there been formal discussions on the repatriation of a relatively and significantly larger population of PoR card holders, who are formally recognized as refugees by the UNHCR.

But more than a million Afghans with PvEs, who have lived in Pakistan for decades, fear their turn could come soon, Dawn reported.

(Only the headline and image of this report may have been reworked by Business Standard staff; the rest of the content is automatically generated from a syndicated feed.)

First print: March 25, 2024 | 1:27 p.m IST