Islamabad: As the deadline for decades-long stay of Afghan refugees in Pakistan draws near, the government of Afghanistan and some foreign countries are persuading Pakistani authorities to grant another extension to refugees.

The extension period for Afghan refugees in the country ends on January 31, 2018, and Pakistan is considering revising its deadline.

There are now an estimated 2.7 million registered and undocumented Afghan refugees in Pakistan since 1979.

On January 3, Pakistan’s cabinet termed Afghan refugees as a major burden on the country of 208 million. “Pakistan’s economy has carried the burden of hosting Afghan refugees for a long time and in the present circumstances cannot sustain it further,” said a statement by the Pakistani cabinet.

In December 2017, Pakistan gave a final deadline for deportation of Afghan refugees which also include some militants and militant-sympathiser linked with terrorism in Afghanistan.

It is the sixth extension given to the refugees by the government. But mass expatriation has never been carried out in full as refugees refused to go home due to internal unrest and economic uncertainty in Afghanistan.

This time, Pakistan is unlikely to give further extension to Afghan refugees beyond June 2018 as “security (Pakistani) officials have declared the refugees, particularly the unregistered ones also a threat to national security”, according to a report published in Express Tribune, a leading newspaper in the country.

Pakistan’s States and Frontiers Regions Division (Safron) ministry, which deal with refugees, said the ministry and other stakeholders will prepare a “mega plan” for refugee repatriation if the government does not decide to grant an extension.

“The repatriation of registered Afghan Refugees is guided by the principle of voluntarism and gradualism as embedded in the Tripartite Agreement signed between Governments of Pakistan, Afghanistan and UNHCR” said Minister for Safron Abdul Qadir Baloch.

Baloch also added that Afghan refugees are engaged in more than a million jobs in Pakistan and “the country’s economy is unable to bear the burden”.

Afghan diplomats in Pakistan are making all-out efforts to persuade Pakistani authorities to grant another extension by one more year.

Afghanistan’s Ambassador Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal, addressing a council of refugee elders in Peshawar, has urged Pakistan to continue its policy of voluntary return of refugees. “It is not a good policy that Afghan refugees have to face the consequences of ups and downs in the Pak-Afghan relations, or due to issues with a third country,” Zakhilwal said referring to recent tensions between Pakistan and the US following US President Donald Trump’s New Year tweet, accusing Pakistan for allegedly harbouring militants.

Talking to Gulf News, Qaisar Khan Afridi, UNHCR spokesman in Islamabad, said: “UNHCR is in close contact with Pakistani officials for a future plan on repatriation which will be presented in the federal cabinet by the end of January 2018”.

“UNHCR emphasises voluntary, safe and dignified repatriation of refugees” Afridi added and claimed “Any forceful repatriation or attempt to harass refugees will tantamount to failure of international principles of refugee protection.”

However, he also maintained: “UNHCR acknowledges Pakistan’s generosity in hosting one of the world’s largest protracted refugee populations for almost four decades and UNHCR calls for international support for reintegration of returnees.” Refugees returning to Afghanistan are given $200 per person for assistance by UNHCR.

Azam Khan, a young Afghan refugee, is pursuing his engineering degree in Karachi. He is disappointed to learn that he has to leave Pakistan. “My life and my career will be ruined if I have to go back to Afghanistan where there is no hope and future for young and educated people” he said.

Azam, 23, is one of the 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan and also represent those born and raised in Pakistan. “I was born in Karachi and I have no place to call home than this,” he said.

Like Azam, uncertainty is gripping millions of Afghan refugees mostly residing in Peshawar, Nowshera, Kohat, Haripur, Swabi, Quetta, Pishin, Chaghai, Loralai, Rawalpindi, Attock, Mianwali, Karachi and even Islamabad.

Despite some problems, many refugees acknowledge that they are living in far better conditions in Pakistan than in other countries such as Iran, which is also home to millions of Afghans. Many Afghans in Pakistan attend schools and universities and are also successfully running businesses.

“Over the past three decades, Afghan refugees have lived in relative peace in Pakistan. However, due to declining donor assistance, domestic constraints, weak economy, refugee fatigue, and the growing threat of terrorism, refugees have become a major issue of concern for Pakistan,” highlighted a 2017 Report by Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad.

“While Pakistan is fully cognisant of the Afghan state’s limitations and challenges . but it cannot achieve this on its own. Afghanistan and the international community will have to play a more constructive role” it added.