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Resettling Afghans Facing Expulsion From Pakistan Poses Challenge for UNHCR

ISLAMABAD — Just after sunset on Nov. 1, police arrived in Fatima’s predominantly Afghan neighborhood on the outskirts of Pakistan’s capital Islamabad. As she and her siblings braced for a thorough check of their documents that allow them to stay in Pakistan, they quickly hid their elderly mother who does not have a valid visa.

“She can’t bear [it] if she go[es] to jail,” said a text message to VOA from Fatima, which is not her real name. She asked to be identified by a pseudonym out of fear for her family’s safety.

Matiullah, another Afghan living in Pakistan who also requested to be identified by another name to protect his family, told VOA he hid when the police came to his apartment complex. He did not want to open the door as his wife lacks a permit to reside in Pakistan.

Fatima and Matiullah are among an estimated 700,000 Afghans who fled to Pakistan since the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan in August 2021, after two decades of fighting U.S. and coalition troops. They — like many others — are on the edge because Islamabad’s deadline demanding all foreigners living in Pakistan leave expired Nov. 1.

“If I take out my wife’s visa, it takes [costs] too much money,” Matiullah told VOA via text message. “I have no money to feed my kids. [To] Buy milk for them. Where I can find that much money?”

1.7 million without proper permits

Pakistan is home to more than 4 million Afghans. Many fled wars at home while others were born to displaced parents. A majority of them hold proof of registration cards or Afghan citizenship cards. However, nearly 1.7 million are living without proper permits, according to the Pakistani government, and are the target of the country’s biggest expulsion announced a month ago.

When the deadline for voluntary return expired this week, Pakistani authorities started going door-to-door checking documents and taking those without proper paperwork to detention centers for possible deportation.

A few thousand are rounded up daily but most are released after background checks. However, Fatima told VOA that after nearly two days, some of her detained neighbors have not returned.

Anger at UNHCR

Many Afghans facing expulsion from Pakistan are awaiting resettlement to other countries through the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and its local partners. Afghans who spoke to VOA expressed frustration with the slow pace of their cases.

“They just tell me to be patient,” said Imamuddin Amiri via phone from Peshawar. Amiri fled Afghanistan with his wife and seven children in September 2021 after the Taliban beat him for his human rights work. He told VOA he had not received any update about his case from the U.N. agency in nearly 18 months.

“They are not doing anything!” an exasperated woman said about UNHCR as her eyes welled up. A trained psychologist and wife of a journalist, she requested to be identified only by the name Halima due to security concerns.

Philippa Candler, the UNHCR representative in Pakistan, acknowledged the people’s frustration but said resettlement is a “challenge.”

Hundreds of thousands seek resettlement

On average, it takes around two years, she told VOA. Once the agency determines a person’s eligibility for resettlement, the country that they are referred to conducts its own vetting process.

Since 2021, 445,000 Afghans have approached the UNHCR for resettlement abroad.

“It is not to say that all of these are refugees, but this is the group that we are discussing with the government of Pakistan to offer them some sort of temporary amnesty,” Candler said.

The agency’s Pakistan office is also not staffed to handle half a million applications. Each UNHCR office gets a quota every year for the number of refugees it can settle abroad. Candler’s team has a limit of only 4,500 people it can send overseas.

To protect those in the UNHCR’s resettlement pipeline from forced deportations by Pakistan, the agency is issuing letters that Afghans can show to authorities. While Islamabad has told the refugee agency these letters will be honored, Halima and others told VOA that police officers often reject such letters as “useless.”

Pakistan is not a signatory to the 1951 U.N. convention protecting refugee rights. But the country has run registration drives in the past with help from the UNHCR to give Afghans documentation that gave them long term protection.

The agency is proposing a similar campaign again.

“We can set up some system with the Government of Pakistan to do screenings so that people who do need international protection, who have refugee claims, can be protected and others would be dealt as irregular migrants,” Candler said.

Setting up such a system requires time. Pakistan gave less than 30 days for undocumented foreigners to leave the country, citing security concerns following a spike in terror attacks this year. Officials repeatedly rejected calls to extend the expulsion deadline.

So far, nearly 300,000 Afghans have left Pakistan since September, when reports of a possible crackdown emerged. Border crossings between the two countries are choked as Afghans rush to the border by the thousands.

Fatima and her family are waiting for an initial interview with the UNHCR. With the clock ticking on the validity of their visas, stress is mounting.

“We can’t be safe because of police issues [in Pakistan] and we can’t go back [to] Afghanistan, it will not be safe for us as well,” she said. “Everyone is afraid.”

Source : VOA News