Spotlight: Uncertainty looms for Afghan refugees as stay in Pakistan nears end

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by Misbah Saba Malik

ISLAMABAD, Sept. 14 (Xinhua) — Majeed Khurrami had to sneak into Pakistan with his elder siblings and grandfather after the Taliban killed his parents on one dark night in a suburban area of Afghanistan’s capital city of Kabul.

“I was one at that time, and I don’t remember anything, but by elder siblings and grandfather told me that our house was later demolished in an airstrike, dashing our hopes to move back and live in my homeland. I don’t even have the documents of my father’s home there, I have never even visited their graves, so moving back and getting settled there is just out of the question for me at the moment.”

Khurrami and other Afghan refugees have been living in Pakistan for about four decades and according to the United Nations, 75 percent of the refugees in the country are the second or third generation of Afghans who left their country during the soviet invasion in the 1970s to seek temporary refuge in Pakistan.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that 1.4 million registered refugees are currently living in Pakistan, making the country the second largest host of a refugee population in the world. Pakistani official estimates show that more than 2.5 million registered and unregistered Afghan refugees are living in the country.

A large number of locals view the refugees as a burden on the already weak economy of Pakistan, and are quite vocal about their stance. The country’s government also seems determined to send the refugees back to their native lands at the end of the day, as they are only given an extension to stay in the country on an interim basis.

In mid-August, around the swearing in time of the new Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government, the country’s foreign office said that they are developing a time-repatriation plan for the early and complete return of the refugees.

In a weekly briefing, the foreign office spokesperson Muhammad Faisal said that they are engaged in mapping out the repatriation plan for the refugees.

The refugees, however, regard Pakistan as their homeland as they were born and bred on Pakistani soil. Some of them have even married with locals and have become deeply integrated into Pakistani society.

As the interim three-month stay extended by the care taker Pakistani government in June this year is coming to an end in September, Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), has visited Pakistan recently and met the country’s Prime Minister Imran Khan and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi.

Acknowledging Pakistan’s generosity for hosting a large number of refuges, the UNHCR chief said that Pakistan is being a good host to the refugees who have been staying in the country for decades.

He also called upon the Afghan government to facilitate the settlement of Pakistan-based refugees by creating a conducive environment for peace and stability.

Majeed Khurrami, who recently completed a six-month vocational workshop organized by the UNHCR, told Xinhua that despite having a certificate he cannot find a job anywhere.

“I’ve got a certificate in automobile repairing, but it is of no practical use as repair shop owners will not give me job because they think that I cannot acquire the skills for the job in such a short period of time. Some shop owners agree to let me work in their shops as an unpaid intern.”

He said that he met the UNHCR chief during his visit to Islamabad and shared his concerns with him. “He told me to wait. I don’t know how long I have to wait, we refugees have been waiting for 40 years, but the international community is not taking any serious steps to resolve our crisis.”

“If Imran Khan doesn’t extend the date of our stay, where will we go? The Pakistani government has repeatedly extended the date of our stay here, but only for a few months. They don’t want to keep us here, we don’t want to be a burden’ on them either, but where should we go? If we go back, we will die of either hunger or militancy and if we stay here, the fear keeps looming that they may tell us to leave at any moment.”

Younas Karimi, an Afghan refugee working as a laborer in Pakistan’s eastern Punjab province, told Xinhua that they are not allowed to drive, buy property or even have mobile phone sim cards in the country.

“Forget about sim cards, some times we even face trouble in burying our dead as locals in some areas do not allow us to have a funeral and burial of our relatives in their cemeteries.”

“Pakistanis as a whole are good people, but they themselves are poor, how can they feed us if they cannot feed themselves?” Karimi told Xinhua.

Karimi said that international community should come forward to help them. He is hopeful that the current visit of the UNHCR chief to the country will bring positive results.

Afghan refugees said that they are hopeful that the Pakistani government will extend their stay in the country, albeit temporarily, but maintain it should also show some leniency in the job sector for the refugees as they cannot get jobs even in private companies despite being born in Pakistan.

The UNHCR said on its website due to the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, the number of refugees choosing to go home has declined this year.

The UNHCR chief reiterated in his recent visit that the solution of the refugee crisis lies in improving security in Afghanistan. He added that the continued militancy must be resolved so as to make Afghanistan a peaceful and prosperous country.

“We have to hope for a more stable period and then we have to invest in Afghanistan,” he said.

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