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Pakistan Pledges Not to Push Out Afghan Refugees

The number of returnees under the program has dropped drastically this year to only 6,000 from around 60,000 in 2015

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Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Image source: www.en.rahapress.af
  • There has been a police crackdown on the Afghani refugees in Pakistan
  • The Pakistani Government said that they have no intention of pushing the Afghan refugees out of Pakistan
  • Pakistan has extended the stay of registered Afghan refugees for another six month, a day before the June 30 deadline was to expire

Recently, there has been a report of a police crackdown on the Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Pakistan government is encouraging them to return to their country. An official of the government had clarified that they did not intend to force them to return home but are merely encouraging them to do so.

A police crackdown in Pakistan has rounded up and deported hundreds of Afghan refugees in recent weeks. But authorities say Afghans with legal refugee status are not being targeted, nor will they be pushed out of the country.

The arrests have mainly taken place in the northwestern border province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, which hosts most of the estimated 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees, in addition to a sizable number of illegal settlers, according to the U.N. refugee agency. Many of them have fled persecution and armed conflict in Afghanistan.

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An Afghan border policeman takes position following clashes with Pakistani forces on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan in eastern Nangarhar province, June 15, 2016. Image Courtesy : VoA
An Afghan border policeman takes position following clashes with Pakistani forces on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan in eastern Nangarhar province, June 15, 2016. Image Courtesy : VoA

Monitoring the border

The crackdown coincides with stepped up Pakistani calls for the international community to help in the repatriation of Afghan refugees, citing security concerns and financial constraints for hosting them for more than three decades. It also comes at a time when relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have deteriorated because of border tensions.

“We have hosted them for over 30 years, it is time for them to return home in conditions of dignity and honor,” said Tariq Fatemi, Pakistani prime minister’s key aide on foreign policy matters.

Free to go

But he clarified the government is encouraging Afghan refugees to return to their home and has “no such intention of pushing them out or coercing them out.”

“But we are convinced that many of these refugees, particularly those who are undocumented, they could be harboring militants and others, and creating a law and order situation,” he said.

Afghan refugees are seen at UNHCR’s Voluntary Repatriation Centre in Peshawar, Pakistan on June 23, 2016. Image Courtesy : VoA
Afghan refugees are seen at UNHCR’s Voluntary Repatriation Centre in Peshawar, Pakistan on June 23, 2016. Image source: Reuters

Afghan officials said on Wednesday, June 29, Pakistan has extended the stay of registered Afghan refugees for another six month, a day before the June 30 deadline was to expire.

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A UNHCR spokeswoman, Dunya Aslam Khan, said her agency has received no reports of any mass arrests or deportations of registered Afghan refugees. They are legally protected, she told VOA, and the agency is able to immediately secure release of documented refugees in case they are arrested.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi talks to an Afghan refugee woman during his visit to the UNHCR’s Repatriation Center in Peshawar, Pakistan, June 23, 2016. Image Source: VoA

During a visit to Pakistan last week, the UNHCR Chief Filippo Grandi dismissed Pakistan’s assertions that Afghan refugees have become a source of terrorism in the country.

In meetings with Pakistani officials, he stressed the whole refugee population must not be blamed or penalized if a few of them have been involved in criminal acts.

During his trip he also announced an increase in assistance packages for registered Afghan refugees families, who return to Afghanistan under the UNHCR facilitated voluntary return program.

The number of returnees under the program has dropped drastically this year to only 6,000 from around 60,000 in 2015. (VOA)

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Pakistan Increases Efforts To Save The U.S.-Afghanistan Peace Talks

Islamabad swiftly welcomed the remarks, which raised official expectations in Pakistan for an official invitation to Prime Minister Khan to visit Washington.

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Imran Khan, Pakistan, Afghanistan,
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Pakistan has intensified efforts to keep the U.S.-led dialogue with the Afghan Taliban on track, but official sources in Islamabad maintain the responsibility for the “success or failure” of the fledgling peace process rests “exclusively” with the two negotiating sides.

The caution comes as U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, landed in the Pakistani capital Thursday amid expectations a direct meeting could take place between his delegation and Taliban negotiators during his stay in the country.

Prior to his departure Wednesday from Kabul, Khalilzad told reporters that talks with the Taliban will “happen very soon. That’s what we’re working toward.” He did not elaborate further.

Meanwhile, in a significant move, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani telephoned Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Thursday and discussed the efforts being made for bringing peace to Afghanistan.

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U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, and Pakistani Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua led their respective delegations in talks in Islamabad, Jan. 17, 2019. VOA

Khan’s office said in a statement that Ghani expressed his gratitude for Pakistan’s “sincere facilitation” for Afghan peace and reconciliation.

It said the prime minister “assured President Ghani that Pakistan was making sincere efforts for a negotiated settlement of the conflict in Afghanistan through an inclusive peace process, as part of shared responsibility.”

Official sources in Islamabad expected “important developments” over the next two days but they would not share further details. “There is no room for missed opportunities” under the circumstances, they insisted.

Pakistani officials maintain in background interviews with VOA that the U.S.-Taliban talks are being facilitated in the hope that they would ultimately lead to an intra-Afghan dialogue for political settlement of the conflict in Afghanistan. All sides in the peace process will share “the credit and benefits of a success,” they insisted.

“Similarly, given sincere desire and efforts of everyone, no one should be exclusively blamed if the main interlocutors fail to agree due to own lack of flexibility that is very much required from both the U.S. and the Taliban at this stage,” a senior official privy to the Pakistani peace diplomacy told VOA.

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U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, and Pakistani Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua, Jan. 17, 2019. VOA

Khalilzad arrived in Pakistan from Afghanistan where he briefed Ghani and other top officials of Afghan government on the U.S.-led peace initiative.

The Taliban has held several meetings with Khalilzad’s team in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates but the insurgents have persistently refused to engage directly with the sitting administration in Kabul. Their refusal is blamed for a lack of progress in negotiations that started last summer, after American diplomats gave in to a major Taliban demand and met them directly.

Khalilzad, however, made it clear on Wednesday the insurgent group would have to engage with the Afghan government for the process to move forward.

“The road to peace will require the Taliban to sit with the Afghan government. There is a consensus among all the regional partners on this point,” the Afghan-born U.S. special envoy told reporters in Kabul.

He went on to warn that if the Taliban chose to fight over peace talks, the United States would support the Afghan government.

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A general view of the Taliban office in Doha, Qatar, May 2, 2015, site of several past negotioations with the Taliban. VOA

The Taliban threatened earlier in the week to pull out of all negotiations if the United States backed away from discussing the key insurgent demand for a troop withdrawal plan and pressured the insurgents into speaking to the Afghan government.

Diplomats privy to the peace process support the U.S. effort for the Taliban to speak directly to the current administration in Kabul to resolve internal Afghan matters. They see the Ghani-led National Unity government as a “legitimate” entity possessing official representation at the United Nations and maintaining diplomatic missions in world capitals.

The last substantial talks between Khalilzad and Taliban officials took place in Abu Dhabi about a month ago and Pakistan took credit for arranging it and bringing an authoritative team of insurgent negotiators to the table.

Officials in Islamabad say that Pakistan’s “biggest contribution” has been that it has “broken the political stalemate that was there in Afghanistan for several years.”

Prime Minister Khan has repeatedly stated that finding a political settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan is a top foreign policy priority for his government. While speaking to Khan on Thursday, Ghani invited him to visit Kabul at his earliest convenience and the Pakistani leader reciprocated by inviting the Afghan president to visit Islamabad.

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U.S. special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, talks with local reporters at the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, Nov. 18, 2018. VOA

Pakistan has long been accused of sheltering Taliban leaders and covertly helping them orchestrate insurgent attacks, charges Islamabad rejects.

U.S. officials, however, acknowledge the “positive role” Pakistan has played in the current Afghan peace effort. The thaw in traditionally mistrusted bilateral ties was visible earlier this month when U.S. President Donald Trump announced he intended to maintain a “great relationship” with Pakistan.

Also Read: Peace Talks With The U.S. Stalled: Taliban

“So, I look forward to meeting with the new leadership in Pakistan. We will be doing that in the not too distant future,” said Trump.

Islamabad swiftly welcomed the remarks, which raised official expectations in Pakistan for an official invitation to Prime Minister Khan to visit Washington, though the Trump administration has so far given no such indication. (VOA)