The future of 2.7 million Afghan refugees is in peril amid a downturn in bilateral relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistan has virtually stopped renewing the refugees’ stay permits for an extended period while relevant authorities have put the renewal of Proof of Registration (PoR) applications on hold.

The Federal Cabinet extended refugees’ PoR cards for only one month in January, which has ended. A press release issued after the Cabinet meeting last month said: “After detailed discussion, the [federal] Cabinet agreed to grant only 30 days’ extension for PoR and also decided that the issue of early repatriation of Afghan refugees shall be raised with UNHCR and with the international community.”

A further 60-day extension was granted again on February 1, valid until the end of March. However, the National Database Registration Authority (NADRA), which is supposed to provide valid stay documents to the refugees with Federal Cabinet approval has begun delaying the renewal of the refugees’ PoR cards.

“By slowing down the process of renewal, Pakistan actually wants to pressurize the US and Afghanistan. Otherwise, the legal residency rights of the registered refugees are guaranteed in a trilateral agreement earlier signed with Afghanistan and the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR),” Rahimullah Yousafzai, a journalist, author and expert on Afghanistan affairs, told Asia Times. He said that Pakistan could force unregistered refugees to return but no such treatment could be meted out to registered refugees.

1.3 million yet to register, seen as security risk

Some 1.4 million registered refugees currently live in Pakistan, mostly in the Northwest province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – along with 1.3 million who are not yet formally registered. The military sees them as a security risk and wants them repatriated as soon as possible. It believes that the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Group has used the refugees to “recruit, morph and melt” into Pakistan.

General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the Pakistan Army’s chief of staff, said in an address to a security conference in Munich last week, that sending the Afghan refugees back would help to stem terrorism in the two countries. An official at the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions (Safron) told Asia Times that the country’s civil and military leaders decided not to extend the PoR cards for Afghan refugees beyond the end of January – to send them back to their country, depending on whether relations deteriorate with the regime in Kabul, or if they face bullying tactics by Washington. He said the Cabinet only renewed these papers for days, not for months and years.

“The voluntary repatriation program is moving very slow with only 48,000 refugees going back to their country in 2017,” he said, adding that UNCHR paid cash assistance of US$200 to every refugee opted to return voluntarily. The UN assistance was $400 per head in 2016 and that had attracted some 400,000 registered and 200,000 unregistered people to return.

Yousafzai said: “These are just pressure tactics because the ‘pull factor’ is nowhere in sight in Afghanistan, to attract a graceful repatriation of millions of Afghan refugees.” He said that unless the US and European countries line up funding for schools, housing and livelihoods, the situation in Afghanistan could not be made conducive for a speedy repatriation.

‘The refugees will have to pay’

The dispute is creating difficulties for the refugees because without valid legal documents they face harassment by security agencies for staying in the country illegally. NADRA officials provide receipts instead of valid PoR cards and security agencies demand legal stay documents from the refugees.

“Security agencies harass people for identification and take us to police stations for interrogation as we don’t have legal documents to produce,” lamented Abdul Jabbar, a first-generation Afghan refugee who runs a tandoori shop making bread in a densely populated area of Peshawar. He said he paid Rs 9000 (US$82) to a NADRA official to get a PoR card which expired last year. “I will now have to pay bribes every time I need to get my PoR card renewed, or alternatively I will have to stay at home.”

Not all are suffering. Abdullah is a 29-year-old second-generation refugee who makes fabulous earnings in a stylish boutique in the posh University Town area of Peshawar. For him going back to Afghanistan would be a nightmare. “I was born, educated, and self-employed in this country and never went to Afghanistan. It would be very hard for me to reestablish in a violence-plagued region that has little or no opportunities for growth,” he remarked.

For these refugees, caught in the middle of a war, support from the Pakistani government seems to be evaporating as the country faces pressure from the US. President Donald Trump has been blaming Pakistan for American military casualties in Afghanistan. As bilateral relations cool between Islamabad and Washington DC, the Afghan refugees trapped on the wrong side of the border look set to pay a heavy price.