Islamabad: Pakistan has extended refugee status for over a million Afghans in the country by an additional six months, the government announced - a move likely to ease fears of Afghans living in Pakistan that they would soon have to return home.
Pakistan has been hosting hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees dating back to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan three decades ago. But many Pakistanis have become increasingly frustrated with the length of time the Afghans have stayed and would like them to leave.
The Pakistani government said in a statement released late on Wednesday that refugee status had been set to expire on December 30 and that they would extend it for another six months. The statement said there are 1.6 million registered and 1 million unregistered Afghans in Pakistan.
The extension would not affect unregistered Afghans, who are considered illegal residents.
The Afghan population in Pakistan is a legacy of Afghanistan's repeated conflicts, starting with the Soviet Union's invasion in 1979.
Many refugees can't fathom returning to Afghanistan any time soon, saying their homeland is still too violent and desperately poor.
Ehsanullah Elaj, an Afghan refugee who is a dentist in the city of Rawalpindi next to Islamabad, questioned what would happen to the refugees after the six-month extension expires.
"It would be very difficult for us to return to Afghanistan," Elaj said. "The majority of people want to stay here."
The Islamabad government has said it will not forcibly evict Afghans, many of whom have children born and raised in Pakistan. However, revoking their refugee status would encourage people to return.
Refugee status allows Afghans to get a government ID card that they use for everyday activities like banking or registering for school.
In a statement, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees welcomed the extension but pointed out the uncertainty for Afghan refugees.
"While the six month extension is important, Afghan refugees will be left wondering what the future has in store in July 2013 and beyond. UNHCR will therefore continue to encourage the government to maintain asylum space in the challenging transitional period ahead," said Neill Wright, the U.N. agency's Pakistan representative.
The U.N. agency has said that 83,000 Afghans have gone back this year, a 40 per cent increase in those returning to their homeland compared to 2011. The U.N. has been spearheading a program this year designed to help Afghan refugees return to their homeland.