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ISLAMABAD: The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) “stand ready” to provide support in registering and managing Afghan nationals, the agencies said on Saturday.

The statement comes amidst the government’s crackdown on illegal immigrants residing across the country. Earlier this week, the government gave an ultimatum to all undocumented immigrants, including Afghan nationals, to leave Pakistan by October 31, or else risk imprisonment and deportation to their respective countries.

The decision was taken in an apex committee meeting headed by Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar and attended by Chief of Army Staff General Asim Munir, among others.

The committee had decided that movement across the border would be subject to passports and visas, while electronic Afghan identity cards (or e-tazkiras) would only be accepted until Oct 31. After the passage of the deadline, the authorities will kick-start an operation targeting illegal properties and businesses owned by immigrants or those being run in collaboration with Pakistani nationals.

The move had drawn a response from Afghan authorities, with Afghan Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid terming it “unacceptable” while urging authorities to revisit the policy.

In a joint statement today, both UN agencies stated they had a “longstanding and strong collaboration” with Pakistan and stood ready to “provide support in developing a comprehensive and sustainable mechanism to register and manage Afghan nationals, including those who may be in need of international protection”. It added that the UNHCR and IOM said they were appealing to Pakistan to “continue its protection of all vulnerable Afghans who have sought safety in the country and could be at imminent risk if forced to return”.

The UN agencies urged all countries to “suspend forcible returns of Afghan nationals and ensure any possible returns to the country take place in a safe, dignified and voluntary manner”. They highlighted that Afghanistan was going through a “severe humanitarian crisis with several human rights challenges, particularly for women and girls”. “Such plans would have serious implications for all who have been forced to leave the country and may face serious protection risks upon return,” the aid organizations noted.

They also acknowledged the government’s “sovereign prerogative over domestic policies, its need to manage populations on its territory, and its obligations to ensure public safety and security”. Appreciating “Pakistan’s generous hospitality towards Afghan nationals for over four decades, despite challenges”, the UN agencies repeated the “call for all returns to be voluntary, safe and dignified, without any pressure, to ensure protection for those seeking safety”.

“The forced repatriation of Afghan nationals has the potential to result in severe human rights violations, including the separation of families and deportation of minors,” the statement emphasized. Government firm on repatriation plan amid criticism, despite criticism from within and without, with organizations such as the UNHCR and Amnesty International calling on the government to rethink its plans, the government doubled down on its policy.

Caretaker Foreign Minister Jalil Abbas Jilani had defended the move, saying that it was “in line with the international practice”. He said Pakistan had been discussing the migrant issue with Afghanistan “for a very long time” and called on international humanitarian agencies to help with the process.

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