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Pakistan to soon launch second phase of repatriation of documented Afghans

Even as confusion prevails about the exact number of undocumented Afghans sent back from Pakistan to their country, preparations are afoot to launch the second phase of repatriation aimed at nearly one million ‘documented’ Afghans, a media report said on Monday. The Interior Ministry had already issued directives to district authorities and police to expedite the mapping, and collecting data of the whereabouts of the Afghan Citizen Card (ACC) holders and given March 25, Monday, as the deadline to complete the exercise, the Dawn newspaper reported quoting documents it had accessed and an official privy to the developments.

Pakistan launched the first round of repatriation of what it called “undocumented aliens” in November last year.

No date has yet been announced, but the official said the campaign to repatriate hundreds of thousands of ACC holders could begin in early to mid-summer, following approval from the federal government.

“We have already started the mapping process,” Abid Majeed, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s additional chief secretary, told the newspaper.

“It will pick up the pace after Ramazan and we hope to complete the survey before April 30,” he said.

According to UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, there are 2.18 million documented Afghan refugees in Pakistan. This includes the 1.3 million refugees holding Proof of Registration (PoR) cards as per the census carried in 2006-07, as well as an additional 8,80,000 refugees granted ACCs following a registration drive in 2017.

The collapse of the civilian government in Kabul following the return of the Taliban to power in August 2021 saw another influx of worried Afghans into Pakistan. Officials put their number anywhere between 6,00,000 and 8,00,000, some with valid travel documents, but an uncertain future.

After the October 31, 2023 deadline ahead of the first drive, no official data was released as to how many of the estimated 1.7 million undocumented Afghans have left for their country since November 2023, though the figure likely fell hugely short of what is now being considered a grossly exaggerated number.

But according to informed sources, the total number of undocumented Afghans who have returned to Afghanistan via Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces in the first round stands at around the half-a-million mark.

Amid mounting pressure to speed up the repatriation of undocumented Afghans in the face of a low exit headcount, officials approached the Ministry of Interior soon afterwards wondering about the origin of the ‘1.7m undocumented Afghans’ claim and sought revalidation of the figure.

No one knows how many of the 8,80,000 ACC holders remain in the country, or how many of them have opted to return to Afghanistan voluntarily.

Officials say they have approached the Ministry of Interior to double-check the figure with the National Database and Registration Authority.

Also, the exercise to differentiate between those with ACCs and those with PoRs could prove quite tricky and put even more pressure on the already-strained relations between the two neighbours.

Taliban chief spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, who had called the repatriation of undocumented Afghans “unacceptable”, struck a more conciliatory tone in an interview with Tolo News recently, calling for more refugee leniency from Pakistan.

However, undeterred by criticism from Kabul and the concerns voiced by human rights bodies and the UN, Islamabad appears to have made up its mind to continue with its repatriation programme and expand it further to include even documented Afghans.

The repatriation of Afghan refugees, which was part of the National Action Plan, has also now found its mention in Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s 100-day working plan.

Accordingly, all provinces and the so-called government of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir have been asked to complete the mapping and verification process of ACC holders by March 25, 2024.

But officials say the mapping could take longer, and it may take at least another month to complete the process.

The federal government is expected to announce a date for voluntary repatriation with a one-month cut-off once the mapping survey is completed, an official said.

No decision has yet been made, nor have there been any formal discussions on the repatriation of a relatively and significantly larger population of PoR card holders, who are formally recognised by the UNHCR as refugees.

But more than a million Afghans with PoRs, who have been living in Pakistan for decades, worry their turn could come soon, reported Dawn.

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