ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistan’s government has extended the stay of Afghan refugees in the country for 60 days, a shorter-than-recommended time that revives fears Islamabad is preparing a forced return of hundreds of thousands to violence-plagued Afghanistan.
About 2.5 million Afghans live in Pakistan, home to the world’s second-largest refugee population.
For years, the refugees, some of whom have been living in Pakistan since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, received longer-term extensions of up to a year of the Proof of Registration cards that give them legal status.
But recent tense relations between the neighbors has prompted concern that Pakistan might retaliate by pushing back Afghan refugees, particularly since official permission to stay was only extended for 30 days at the beginning of this year.
On Wednesday, Pakistan’s Ministry of States and Frontier Regions, which deals with the refugees, recommended a five-month extension in permission to stay.
But late that evening, the cabinet disregarded the recommendation and ordered a shorter extension.
“The cabinet approved a grant of 60 days’ extension in the Proof of Registration Cards for Afghan refugees,” the prime minister’s office said in a statement late on Wednesday.
The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) in Afghanistan declined immediate comment on the Pakistani decision, saying it had yet to get all the details, but stressed the importance of refugees returning in a “voluntary, gradual and in a dignified way”.
In 2016, nearly 400,000 refugees returned during a campaign by Pakistan to press them to go home. Last year, about 60,000 came back.
Any big influx back to Afghanistan would test the ability of the government and international agencies to cope, said the UNHCR representative in Afghanistan, Fathiaa Abdalla.
“It will put pressure on the services, on the humanitarian support and it would become more or less an emergency and that wouldn’t be good for the country and wouldn’t be good for the people themselves,” Abdalla said.
“Therefore the importance of a gradual and voluntary return.”
Afghanistan is already struggling with large numbers of internally displaced people.
In 2017, fighting forced 360,000 people from their homes, the United Nations said, while more than 17,000 people were displaced over the past week, the U.N. Organisation for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Assistance said.
Afghanistan was not safe enough for large numbers of people to return, the aid group Oxfam said this week.
“To claim the opposite is to ignore the reality and puts lives at risk,” it said.
Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have deteriorated in recent years and tension heightened after two particularly bloody Taliban attacks in Kabul that Afghans and the United States blamed on militants based in Pakistan.
Washington and Kabul say Taliban and other militants plot carnage in safe havens on the Pakistani side of the border and have repeatedly urged Pakistan to do more to rein them in.
Pakistan complains the large number of refugees are a burden, and recently said Islamist militants could hide among them.
Pakistan said last month a suspected U.S. drone strike in a district along the Afghan border hit an Afghan refugee camp, a statement the United States said was “false”.
(Reporting by Asif Shahzad; Additional reporting by Robert Birsel in KABUL; Writing by Kay Johnson)