Pakistan is facing new inflows of asylum seekers from neighbouring Afghanistan, following the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, a report citing the UN refugee agency said on June 19.

On the eve of the World Refugees Day, observed on June 20 every year, Qaiser Khan Afridi, a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Pakistan, said more than 250,000 Afghans seeking asylum have trickled into Pakistan since January 2021.

“UNHCR is aware that over 250,000 Afghans seeking asylum are reported to have arrived in Pakistan since January 2021, however, the overall number of Afghans with international protection needs is likely to be higher,” said Afridi.

“We are currently discussing with the government of Pakistan the way forward on registration and documentation of asylum-seekers, predominantly from Afghanistan,” he said.

Last week, the report added, Pakistan’s federal cabinet approved a policy under which, Islamabad will issue transit visas to the Afghan asylum seekers to enter the country legally to complete paperwork for further international travel.

As for the number of Afghan refugees returning to their homeland after the Taliban’s takeover, Afridi said only 850 refugees (185 families) have returned to the country since the beginning of 2022 under the commission’s voluntary repatriation programme. The figure, he added, is slightly higher compared to repatriation during the same period last year.

“Upon return, repatriated families receive a grant to support them as they rebuild their lives and communities. The UNHCR provides financial support of $250 each to the repatriating families,” he added.

Pakistan is currently hosting 1.3 million documented and almost as many undocumented Afghan refugees. Of them, a majority are residing in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which serves as a gateway to Afghanistan, the report further said.

The southwestern Balochistan province and the country’s commercial capital, Karachi, also host a large number of refugees.

“UNHCR advocates that returns need to be voluntary and take place in conditions of safety, dignity and security,” said Afridi.

Saleem Khan, the chief commissioner for Afghan refugees, said the repatriation process remained sluggish because of coronavirus-related restrictions in the past two years, aside from economic and political developments in Afghanistan.

“The process has seen a kind of resumption over the past one week but it’s premature to predict the future trend. It will take another couple of months to determine that,” he was reported as saying.

Located on the northern outskirts of Pakistan’s most populous city, the run-down locality with limited access to healthcare and basic sanitation is home to nearly 250,000 refugees who were forced to flee due to a lingering conflict.

Karachi is home to more than 300,000 Afghan refugees, most of whom work as laborers or own small shops in Pashtun-dominated areas.

According to UNHCR, more than 4.4 million refugees have been repatriated to Afghanistan since 2002, but many, including hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers, returned to Pakistan due to violence, unemployment and a lack of education and medical facilities.

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