ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistan has decided against evicting Afghan refugees for at least six more months, avoiding a potential exodus into Afghanistan that could have destabilized Islamabad's war-torn neighbor at a time when Kabul is bracing for the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2014.
There are more than 1.6 million Afghans in Pakistan registered as refugees, and an additional 1 million undocumented refugees in the country. Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf announced this week that the government would cancel the revocation of refugee status for the registered Afghans and instead allow them to legally stay in Pakistan through June 2013. The extension does not apply to unregistered refugees.
Registered refugees are issued special identity cards that allow them to stay in Pakistan. Those cards would have expired on Dec. 30, leaving the refugees vulnerable to deportation.
Pakistani officials have long expressed their frustration with the lack of progress in repatriating the world's largest refugee community -- Afghans who fled the Soviet invasion and later, Taliban rule. Many refugees have lived in Pakistan for more than three decades. Their presence is resented by many Pakistanis, who see the refugees as a source of escalating crime and accuse them of involvement in terror strikes across the country.
Officials from Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United Nations have been negotiating the fate of the refugees over the last few months. Afghan leaders have maintained that their government is struggling with a battered economy and an 11-year war against Taliban insurgents, and lacks the resources to supply incoming refugees with land, housing or jobs.
Afghan and U.N. officials have repeatedly urged Islamabad to continue a policy of voluntary repatriation of the refugees. In past years, the rate of Afghans returning to their homeland had been dropping. According to U.N. refugee agency figures, in 2010, 109,383 Afghan refugees returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan and Iran, which also hosts a large Afghan refugee community. In 2011, the number of returning refugees dropped to 52,096.
However, U.N. officials say 83,000 Afghans have left Pakistan to return home this year, a 40% increase from the previous year.
In a statement released Thursday, the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees welcomed Islamabad's decision, but urged Pakistani officials to consider the welfare of refugees after the extension period expires.
"While the six-month extension is important, Afghan refugees will be left wondering what the future has in store in July 2013 and beyond," said Neill Wright, the UNHCR representative in Pakistan. "UNHCR will therefore continue to encourage the government to maintain asylum space in the challenging transitional period ahead."