Afghan and Iranian ministers arrived in Pakistan for the quadripartite meeting, they said on Sunday.
Representatives of the UN refugee agency will also participate in the daylong meeting, officials from Pakistan’s Ministry of States and Frontier Regions (SAFRON) said. SAFRON Ministry also looks after the issues related to Afghan refugees.
Afghan Minister for Refugees and Repatriation Syed Hussain Alemi Balkhi and Iran Deputy Minister for Interior Hossein Zolfaghari held separate meetings with SAFRON Minister Shehryar Khan Afridi in Islamabad on Sunday after they arrived in Islamabad and discussed matters relating to the quadripartite meeting, a spokesman for the ministry said.
Indrika Ratwatte, director of the Bureau for Asia and the Pacific, UNHCR Geneva, Switzerland, has also been invited to the meeting.
The official said the 6th Steering Committee Meeting will discuss the progress in implementing the solution strategy for Afghan refugees.
Pakistan still hosts around 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees, according to a spokesman of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Registered refugees have Proof of Registration (PoR) cards that allow them to legally stay in Pakistan. Last year in September, the Pakistani government extended stay of the refugees until June 30, 2019.
Besides the registered refugees, Pakistan has nearly 880,000 Afghan refugees who were documented in 2018 but they do not have PoR cards.
The UNHCR says a total of 1,700 registered Afghan refugees have been voluntarily repatriated through UNHCR assistance this year so far. The repatriation started in March after the winter break.
Pakistan and Afghanistan have established a bilateral working group on refugees’ return and reintegration within the framework of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan on Peace and Solidarity (APAPPS). Both countries are now working on a dignified, time-bound and complete return of all Afghans to their homeland. The group met in Islamabad in November last year.
Pakistani and UNHCR officials say that repatriation of the refugees has slowed down in view of the insecurity in Afghanistan. Lack of facilities for the returnees is also cited as another reason for reluctance of the refugees’ return.
Pakistani officials say the repatriation process of Afghan refugees is not encouraging as it is decreasing with each passing year.
Foreign Office Additional Secretary Muhammad Aejaz informed the Geneva Ministerial Conference in November last year that in 2018 only around 27,000 Afghans residing in Pakistan returned to their country.
In 2016, at least 606,905 registered and undocumented refugees repatriated to Afghanistan from Pakistan, according to figures from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. In 2017, around 60,000 registered and 100,000 undocumented refugees returned from Pakistan. Thousands others skipped documentation fearing deportation, Pakistani and Afghan officials say.
Despite the voluntary return of 4.4 million Afghan refugees since 2002, Pakistan continues to host millions of Afghans. “On average, at any given point in time, Pakistan has hosted 3 million Afghans throughout the last four decades – the largest protracted presence of refugees anywhere on record,” according to Aejaz.
Giving an update, he said over 2.8 million Afghans were still residing in Pakistan. “They include 1.4 million registered, 879,000 recently documented illegally residing Afghans, and another approximately half a million undocumented Afghans,” he added.
Officials now want Kabul to chalk out a strategy for repatriation of the refugees, as they cite lack of international support for the refugees and security issues.
“Pakistan’s economy had carried the burden of hosting Afghan refugees for a long time and, in the present circumstances, cannot sustain it further,” the federal cabinet had said last year. Afghan officials insist that repatriation of Afghan refugees should be gradual and voluntary. Official sources say Pakistani side could raise the issue of early repatriation of Afghan refugees with the UNHCR in Monday’s meeting.