Pakistan’s government has extended the stay of Afghan refugees in the country for 60 days, a shorter-than-recommended time that revives fears Islamabad is preparing a forced return of hundreds of thousands to violence-plagued Afghanistan.
About 2.5 million Afghans live in Pakistan, home to the world’s second-largest refugee population.
For years, the refugees, some of whom have been living in Pakistan since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, received longer-term extensions of up to a year of the Proof of Registration cards that give them legal status.
But recent tense relations between the neighbours has prompted concern that Pakistan might retaliate by pushing back Afghan refugees, particularly since official permission to stay was only extended for 30 days at the beginning of this year.
On Wednesday, Pakistan’s Ministry of States and Frontier Regions, which deals with the refugees, recommended a five-month extension in permission to stay.
But late that evening, the cabinet disregarded the recommendation and ordered a shorter extension.
“The cabinet approved a grant of 60 days’ extension in the Proof of Registration Cards for Afghan refugees,” the prime minister’s office said in a statement late on Wednesday.
The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) in Afghanistan declined immediate comment on the Pakistani decision, saying it had yet to get all the details, but stressed the importance of refugees returning in a “voluntary, gradual and in a dignified way”.
In 2016, nearly 400,000 refugees returned during a campaign by Pakistan to press them to go home. Last year, about 60,000 came back.