Pakistan extends stay of Afghan refugees until year end

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has permitted registered Afghan refugees to remain in the country until the end of the year, the government said as an earlier deadline was set to expire.

In a statement late Wednesday, the government said Sharif directed authorities to immediately engage the U.N. refugee agency and the Afghan government for the gradual relocation of refugee camps in Pakistan to Afghanistan.

Pakistan is currently hosting at least 1.5 million Afghan refugees. An additional one million unregistered Afghans have been staying in many parts of Pakistan since the 1980s, when they escaped violence at home.

Pakistan’s government had previously set a June 30 deadline, after which Afghan refugees would have been deemed to be staying in Pakistan illegally and would be at risk of deportation. The decision to extend the stay of the refugees was announced at the request of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.”

“In order to facilitate relocation and as a gesture of continued goodwill, Pakistan shall commit provision of wheat for the relocated camps in Afghanistan for a period of three years, free of cost,” it said.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, visited Pakistan this week. He announced an increase in the assistance package for Afghan refugees who opt to repatriate under the UNHCR-facilitated voluntary return program, which will double from $200 to $400.

In a UNHCR statement on Wednesday, Grandi praised Pakistan for generously hosting Afghan refugees.

Millions of Afghans fled their country to neighboring Pakistan and Iran during the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and after the Taliban came to power in 1996 — creating one of the world’s largest refugee populations. Both Pakistan and Iran have been pressing for them to leave.

Authorities in Pakistan have said a number of militants are hiding in refugee camps, creating a security risk for the country.

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