International

UNHCR chief meets Pakistan's premier to discuss the situation of Afghan refugees following clampdown

By The Canadian Press

Published 2:51 PDT, Tue July 9, 2024

ISLAMABAD (AP) — The head of the U.N. refugee agency and Pakistan's prime minister held talks Tuesday about Afghan refugees living in uncertainty in Pakistan following the government's anti-migrant crackdown that started last year as militants stepped up attacks on security forces.

That crackdown on undocumented Afghans in Pakistan was apparently recently put on hold, without authorities offering any explanation for this.

Pakistan has long hosted an estimated 1.7 million Afghans, most of whom fled during the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation of their country. More than half a million others escaped Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover in 2021, with thousands waiting in Pakistan for resettlement in the United States and elsewhere. 

Since Pakistan's widely criticized clampdown started last November, an estimated 600,000 Afghans have returned home. The undocumented Afghans are separate from refugees who have registered with the authorities and the UNHCR, though the crackdown has raised concerns among the refugee population as well.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi arrived in Pakistan on Sunday and met with Afghan refugees on the first two days of his visit. 

“I spent time with Afghan refugees whose resourcefulness is testimony to their strength — and to Pakistan’s long hospitality,” Grandi wrote on the social media platform X, adding that his visit aimed to “discuss how we can best support both amidst growing challenges.”

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shabaz Sharif told the U.N. refugee agency chief that Afghan refugees are treated with “exemplary respect and dignity” despite facing multiple challenges, according to a statement released by his office Tuesday. 

Sharif also urged the international community to "recognize the burden being shouldered by Pakistan while hosting such a large refugee population and demonstrate collective responsibility.”

He also asked for help from UNHCR to repatriate the refugees in “a safe and dignified” manner.

After the meeting, the UNHCR said Grandi expressed his appreciation that the repatriation of undocumented persons has been suspended and sought assurances that it would remain on hold. 

There was no immediate confirmation from the authorities that the repatriation was in fact halted. 

Grandi also urged Pakistani officials to extend the validity of the registration cards — critical identity documents — held by over 1.3 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

Also on Tuesday, Grandi met with Asif Durrani, the country’s special representative for Afghanistan. Durrani wrote on X that the two men "expressed readiness to find a durable solution to the Afghan refugee problem, including their repatriation.”

Pakistan had previously said the crackdown targeted those without valid documents regardless of nationality. 

U.N. agencies have decried the forced expulsion of Afghans from Pakistan, saying it could lead to severe human rights violations — including the separation of families and deportation of minors. Although Pakistan had been routinely deporting Afghans who came here without valid documents in recent years, the ongoing crackdown is unprecedented in scale.

Since the crackdown, the neighboring Taliban-led government in Kabul said it set up a commission to deal with repatriated nationals and has criticized Islamabad’s actions. 

Pakistan has also faced a surge in militant attacks on security forces and civilians, mostly blamed on the Pakistani Taliban — a separate militant group but a close ally of the Afghan Taliban — straining the ties between the two countries.

On Tuesday, four soldiers, including an army captain, were killed in a pair of attacks in former militant strongholds of North and South Waziristan in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province near the Afghan border, the military said. Two militants were killed in the North Waziristan attack, where a search operation was still underway to find the attackers.

Sharif denounced the attacks, and paid glowing tributes to the slain soldiers, a statement from his office said. 

North and South Waziristan served as a base for the Pakistani Taliban until a crackdown by the Pakistani military killed or arrested most in recent years. Others fled to Afghanistan, where they have been living openly.

– Munir Ahmed, The Associated Press

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