PESHAWAR -- Pakistani officials are working nationwide to register the country's large Afghan refugee population.
The six-month-long drive to register undocumented Afghan nationals living in Pakistan is gaining momentum as more families are turning up at centres set in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and across the country.
Half of the 20 centres nationwide were established in KP because the majority of the registered refugees, as well as undocumented Afghans, have been living in the province for almost 40 years now.
"The drive formally began on August 16 all over the province [and country], under which those Afghans who possess no documentation of any kind will be registered and given Afghan Citizen (AC) cards," Waqar Maroof, the Director General for Refugees Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, told Pakistan Forward.
Two centres each have been set up in Peshawar and Nowshera, he said, adding that other centres exist in Mardan, Mansehra, Dir, Hangu, Kohat and Haripur.
"The response so far is good, as an average of about 2,200 individuals are being registered daily at 10 centres throughout the province," said Maroof.
"As many as 14,000 people were registered by August 26 in KP, while another 11,000 Afghans or so were registered in other provinces of the country," added Maroof.
On August 26, KP officials alone registered 2,213 undocumented Afghans, he said.
Pakistan's Ministry of States and Frontier Regions (SAFRON), the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) and Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations oversee the project with support from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
The pilot project of the six-month registration programme began in July 20 only in Peshawar and Islamabad, but the nationwide drive began formally August 16.
New cards, security concerns
The UNHCR has welcomed the project of registering undocumented Afghans living in Pakistan, estimated to number 600,000 to 1 million.
"The step is significant and will help regularise the stay of thousand of Afghans who are not able to return to their country," Duniya Aslam Khan, the UNHCR spokesperson for South Asia, told Pakistan Forward.
The AC cards that Afghans stand to receive will provide them legal protection from deportation and in the case of arrest, she said, adding that the AC cards will enable Afghans to stay in Pakistan until they obtain an Afghan passport or other travel document.
"The process began after three years of consultations among the Afghan and Pakistani governments and the UNHCR," she said, according to an official statement in July.
Card issuance is an official response to a security headache that Pakistan had faced for decades. Law enforcement, especially in KP, suffered from having hundreds of thousands of undocumented foreign guests.
Afghan refugees who did not register with any government or international agency were difficult to track down if they became involved in crime or terrorism.
"Registration will help government agencies obtain the data of all those living in Pakistan," Waqar Ahmad, a KP Police focal person, told Pakistan Forward. "The cards issued to them will help them legalise their stay in Pakistan."
"This will help improve law and order," added Ahmad. "Nobody will be undocumented now."
Opportunities for Afghans
Many Afghans who feared arrests and deportation are happy with the process.
"This process will at least provide us a document for legalising our stay in Pakistan and protect us from arrest and deportation," said Habib Ullah, an Afghan national who was born in Peshawar but had never obtained any identity card to legalise himself in Pakistan.
He and his children want to stay, he said. "My children want to get an education and live a better life," he told Pakistan Forward, adding that many of his deported relatives have returned to Peshawar by obtaining passports and visas.
"The process of registration should have been carried out much earlier," said Saad Khan, a student at the University of Peshawar. "One can't live anywhere without any valid documents."
In a smaller reform, Pakistan has issued special border crossing cards to Afghan schoolchildren who attend private schools in Khyber Agency, Pakistan.
The cards became necessary after Pakistan this year instituted tighter controls on the Afghan border, making it impossible for those children to attend class. The majority of them have resumed regular school attendance.