ISLAMABAD - Uncertainty shrouds the fate of the UNHCR-led repatriation programme for Afghan refugees following prolonged delay on the part of Prime Minister of Pakistan in signing a related summary seeking extension in the refugees project expiring this month-end. The matter may be taken up in the PM Cabinet meeting today (Wednesday), it is learnt.

Last month, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in coordination with the Ministry of States and Frontier Region (SAFRON), had formulated a summary sent to the PM Secretariat seeking the premier’s nod for extension in the tripartite agreement on the voluntary repatriation of registered Afghan refugees from Pakistan to Afghanistan.

The UNHCR-led tripartite agreement was first signed between the UNHCR, Pakistan and Afghanistan in the year 2002. The agreement is renewed at respective bilateral level, between Pakistan and the UNHCR as well as Afghanistan and the UNHCR. When contacted, the UNHCR Chief in Pakistan Neil Wright confirmed to this correspondent that matter was still pending following non-signing of the related summary by the PM. “As of today, it’s still pending. The agreement has not been extended as yet,” he said.

Asked if delay in signing the summary could adversely impact the registered Afghan refugees repatriation programme, the UNHCR diplomat said, “Of course it will affect the repatriation programme. My understanding is that tomorrow (Wednesday,) a meeting would be held to discuss this issue. So, we have to wait till tomorrow,” he said referring to the Cabinet meeting scheduled today.

To a query, Neil Wright clarified that the UNHCR would not be part of the today’s discussion. “This is a national policy issue being discussed at the governmental level by the Government of Pakistan. The Cabinet is dealing with the matter.”

This year’s Afghan refugees repatriation agreement expires on the coming 31st, after which, the UNHCR would no longer be mandated to continue with the repatriation programme in case the agreement is not renewed. On March 13, 2009, Pakistan and the UNHCR had signed a fresh repatriation agreement that was part of the already existing tripartite agreement to extend the stay of Afghan refugees in Pakistan until the end of 2012. In September this year, Afghanistan and Pakistan had agreed to extend the tripartite agreement upon its expiry (December 31, 2012), in a trilateral meeting held in Istanbul. 

Official sources said, the summary to extend the tripartite agreement has been delayed due to the ‘hectic engagements’ of the Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf and the Minister for SAFRON Engineer Shaukatullah. Reportedly, the SAFRON minister had requested for an appointment with the PM before the latter was to sign the summary. However, the said meeting has not taken place that has reportedly caused the matter to keep lingering. The SAFRON Minister Engineer Shaukatullah was called twice at his cell phone on Tuesday. His Secretary Muhammad Tariq received this journalists’ calls to inform that the minister was in a meeting with secretary SAFRON and he would call back after the meeting.

The minister’s version regarding delay in signing the summary for extension in Afghan refugees repatriation programme was not received till the filing of this report. The particular summary, the officials said, reached the PM Secretariat last week but it has not been put up before the PM for consideration.

 Before that, the file remained in the SAFRON minister’s office for weeks. The minister wants the summary to be signed after his meeting with the PM, may be because he wants to brief the PM on the issue or may be because he wants to take ‘credit’,” The Nation was told.

Since 2002, over 3.7 million registered Afghan refugees have returned home under the tripartite agreement on voluntary repatriation. Over 3.5 million illegal Afghan immigrants are believed to have been presently staying in Pakistan.

The UNHCR’s official record shows, since January this year, around 0.13 million registered Afghan refugees have been repatriated or are expected to be repatriated by December 31, to bring the number of the registered Afghan refugees here at over 1.57 million. Earlier this year, this number was counted at 1.70 million.

Brought to light by this newspaper on the last month’s 29th, the final report of the Population Profiling, Verification and Response Survey (PPVRS) on Afghan refugees in Pakistan says that eighty-four percent of the total registered Afghan refugees have no intention to leave Pakistan, while 20 percent of them have invested over 18 billion rupees in different businesses here.

The PPVRS was conducted by the UNHCR in coordination with the National Database Registration Authority (NADRA) in September last year. It contains the relevant statistical data about registered Afghan refugees as well as the unregistered Afghan immigrants living in mixed communities with the registered refugees here.