On 27th June 2013, Pakistan extended the deadline for repatriation of Afghan refugees. The refugee status for the Afghans was set to expire on 30th June 2013. This decision was taken at the request of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a United Nations Agency working for the protection of refugees. A new date for the repatriation has not been announced yet. This has generated a fierce debate regarding the status of Afghan refugees in Pakistan and their eventual repatriation. The issue is quite sensitive because it has political, humanitarian, and human rights dimensions to it and needs careful consideration on part of both the civil society as well as the federal government. The fact that Pakistan is not a signatory to the United Nations Refugees Convention 1951 and the 1967 Protocol further complicates the matter.

Pakistan has been playing host to Afghan refugees since more than three decades. Although, according to latest statistics, a total of 3,818,582 individuals have been repatriated to Afghanistan between 2002 and 2013, nevertheless, there are currently more than 1.6 million registered Afghan refugees who are yet to leave and are still residing in Pakistan. Out of them, approximately 37% of registered Afghan refugees live in 80 refugee camps of which 79 are located along the borders with Afghanistan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, while 63% live in rural and urban areas of Pakistan. In addition, there are reportedly some 0.6 million unregistered Afghans present in the country. Thus, having been host to the largest refugee population in the world, the repatriation process has now become a significant issue for Pakistan.

There is a general perception in Pakistan that the Afghan refugees are a burden on the country’s economy. However, what is often forgotten is the responsibility of Pakistan as a neighbor and a member of the international comity of nations. Although Pakistan has not signed and ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol, it is bound by customary international law to provide assistance to the Afghans.

A key player in the rehabilitation and repatriation of refugees has been the UNHCR. The agency has facilitated the return of millions of Afghans. The criticism towards UNHCR that the agency is not committed to the return of refugees appears to be lacking substance. If anything, UNHCR is playing a key role in rehabilitating the refugees, and in assisting Pakistan in dealing with this huge influx. Pakistan government, in accordance with international law and human rights obligations, is committed to maintaining the voluntary nature of repatriation. Instead of carrying out the much-feared mass deportation of Afghans, the current government has relaxed the deadline yet again and is now working on drafting a policy framework for ongoing repatriation.

One of the major reasons for the increased pressure on the government to repatriate Afghan refugees is that many of the Afghans now settled in Pakistan, especially those in urban centers particularly Karachi, are not really refugees but are in fact “economic migrants” who are benefitting from the refugee status. For example, the fact that there are more male refugees than females is alarming because globally the women outnumber men. These economic migrants are indeed a major burden on the country’s economy. In addition, there is growing evidence of a number of Afghan economic migrants involved in major crimes including kidnapping for ransom, land grabbing, drug dealing, etc. There is absolutely no reason that these individuals, who are blatantly disobeying the law of land, be allowed to do business in Pakistan. It is hoped that UNHCR and Pakistan will work together to identify such persons and deport them immediately. Refugee status is a special status granted under international law and UNHCR should play its role in ensuring that such status is not abused.

One must remember that the genuine refugees have suffered pain and misery which is incomprehensible and these individuals are extremely vulnerable. In most cases, their settlements in Afghanistan are completely destroyed and they have nothing to go back to. This is a humanitarian crisis and cannot be viewed only from a political lens. All efforts must be made by the Pakistan government and UNHCR to ensure that the Afghan Refugees in Pakistan are rehabilitated and their living conditions improve. Under no circumstances must the Refugees be involuntarily deported. However, it is equally important that the pace of voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees is increased. Pakistan continues to play its role in the international community by welcoming and rehabilitating so many refugees despite its dilapidated economy. Now is a time to devise a framework wherein a final deadline is set, and the refugee repatriation is completed, of course in consultation with UNHCR, and while ensuring that all humanitarian and human rights considerations are strictly adhered to.

The writer is a lawyer.