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Pakistan says 1.45 million Afghans can stay for another year following UN refugee chief’s visit

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ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan announced Wednesday it is extending the stay of 1.45 million Afghan refugees who legally reside in the country, a day after a visit by the U.N. refugee agency.

Afghan refugees with proper documentation will be able to remain in Pakistan until June 30, 2025, according to a statement issued by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s office. On Tuesday, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi urged Pakistani authorities to extend the validity of their registration cards — critical identity documents.

The previous stay extension issued by Pakistan’s government ended June 30, causing broad uncertainty and fear they may be repatriated.

The decision came following a widely criticized anti-migrant crackdown that started last year targeting anyone without valid documentation regardless of nationality, according to Pakistani authorities, forcing an estimated 600,000 Afghans to return home..

After wrapping up his three-day visit in which he met Afghan refugees and Pakistani officials, Grandi issued a statement, expressing his appreciation that the repatriation of undocumented persons has been suspended.

Grandi’s statement stunned Pakistani officials who say no such understanding was given to him. On Wednesday, Mumtaz Zahra Baloch, the spokesperson for Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, refuted Grandi’s claim, saying “This is not true.”

In a statement, she said “no such understanding has been given by Pakistan to the UNHCR, including in recent meetings with the High Commissioner for Refugees.” She said the crackdown, which is known as the “Illegal Foreigners Repatriation Plan” was still in place and is being “implemented in an orderly and phased manner.”

U.N. agencies have decried the forced expulsion of Afghans from Pakistan, saying it could lead to severe human rights violations — including the separation of families and deportation of minors. Although Pakistan had been routinely deporting Afghans who came here without valid documents in recent years, the ongoing crackdown is unprecedented in scale

Pakistan has long hosted an estimated 1.7 million Afghans, most of whom fled during the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation of their country. More than half a million others escaped Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover in 2021, with thousands waiting for resettlement in the United States and elsewhere.

The undocumented Afghans are separate from refugees who are registered with the authorities and the UNHCR, though the crackdown has raised concerns among refugee communities as well. Pakistan has said that the crackdown was not specific to Afghans, and it was aimed at deporting those foreigners living illegally in Pakistan.

By MUNIR AHMED
Associated Press

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