ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has permitted registered Afghan refugees to remain in the country until the end of the year, a foreign ministry spokesman said Thursday, as an earlier deadline was set to expire.
Government spokesman Nafees Zakaria said Pakistan hosts about 3 million Afghan refugees, half of whom are unregistered.
Pakistan's government had previously set a June 30 deadline, after which Afghan refugees would have been deemed to be staying in Pakistan illegally and would be at risk of deportation. The decision to extend the stay of the refugees was announced at the request of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
In a statement late Wednesday, Sharif directed authorities to immediately engage the U.N. refugee agency and the Afghan government to gradually relocate refugee camps in Pakistan to Afghanistan.
"In order to facilitate relocation and as a gesture of continued goodwill, Pakistan shall commit provision of wheat for the relocated camps in Afghanistan for a period of three years, free of cost," Sharif said in the statement.
Afghanistan welcomed the extension of the deadline, but the refugees and repatriation minister, Sayed Hossain Alemi Balki, said he wanted it extended until December 2017. He also criticized Pakistani police for harassing refugees, and said Pakistan should not forcibly repatriate Afghan refugees when the new deadline expires.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, visited Pakistan this week. He announced an increase in the assistance package for Afghan refugees who opt to repatriate under the UNHCR-facilitated voluntary return program, which will double from $200 to $400.
Millions of Afghans fled their country to neighboring Pakistan and Iran during the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the brutal civil war of 1992-1996 between U.S.-backed rebel groups that had fought the Soviets and again after the Taliban came to power in 1996 — creating one of the world's largest refugee populations. Both Pakistan and Iran have been pressing for them to leave.
Authorities in Pakistan have said a number of militants are hiding in refugee camps, creating a security risk for the country.
Associated Press writer Amir Shah in Kabul contributed to this story.