The Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, its occupation till 1988 and the subsequent civil wars in the country led to one of the greatest refugees crises of the 20th century. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans poured into Pakistan, and were welcomed by the Government of the time. More than three decades later, approximately three million Afghans are still residing in the country with a vast number undocumented, unidentified, and unregistered. However, the official, registered Afghan refugees figures being pushed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is 1.4 million.
Recently, the Prime Minister of Pakistan brought up the issue of the Afghan refugees during his speech at the United Nations General Assembly session in September, highlighting the grave economic and security consequences of those Afghans living under the radar.
Domestically, the Afghan Refugees are managed by the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions. The minister, Abdul Qadir Baloch, has, on the record, commented on the difficulty of locals in various cities to find jobs as over one million Afghan refugees are working in Pakistan. Not only that, the country stays blinded to their sources of income, any possible criminal history, and religious inclinations as well.
Following the horrific 2014 terrorist attack at the Army Public School in Peshawar, the Government soon announced a comprehensive National Action Plan (NAP) to speed up the war being fought against terrorism in the country. One of the key components of the NAP is the “formulation of a comprehensive policy to deal with the issue of Afghan refugees, beginning with the registration of all refugees.”
To streamline the process, the Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB) has developed a mobile application for the biometric verification of refugees using the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) database. The Afghan refugees in Pakistan have been issued unique identities called Proof of Registration (PoR). Their digital fingerprints i.e. index fingers and thumbs of both hands have been matched to their PoR number through the fingerprinting matching device which is attached to a tablet via a USB cable. The application has been deployed in Gujrat, Attock, Rawalpindi, Chakwal, Mianwali and Sargodha up till now and is being used by PITB personnel assisted by the District Police Officer. In the off chance that these officials find Afghan refugees that are not registered, they are able to enter their information in the system as well as their fingerprints using the said device.
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The Public Information Associate at UNHCR in Pakistan, Qaisar Khan Afridi says, “by registering the Afghan refugees, they can be traced and tracked if they are involved in any criminal activities. It is important to have that record.”
Apart from formally registering them in the system, the government has given a notice for all refugees to leave the country by March 31, 2017. Till now 3,416 Afghan Refugees have been deported including 2,844 from KP, 195 from Balochistan, one in Islamabad and 376 from FATA. And now because of the mobile application, 119,162 refugees have been verified.
However, once they are repatriated from Pakistan, they are removed from the database. Hence, if they return to Pakistan, they are again illegal and undocumented.