Pakistan receives global condemnation over USD 830 ‘exit fee’ for Afghan refugees

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Several Western diplomats and the United Nations have strongly criticised Pakistan over its decision to impose hundreds of dollars in exit fees for every Afghan refugee who fled the persecution by the Taliban condemning the decision as “shocking and frustrating”, The Guardian reported. The “unprecedented” move targets refugees who are waiting to leave Pakistan for Western countries under resettlement schemes, and charges about USD 830 for each person. This comes after Pakistan announced a crackdown on undocumented foreigners and set November 1 as the deadline for about 2 million unregistered Afghans to leave the country. It further started mass deportations of undocumented Afghans as the deadline passed.

Thousands of Afghans without the correct documents or with expired visas have been in Pakistan since the fall of Kabul in August 2021 waiting to restart their lives in countries in the west. Most of them worked with Western governments and organisations and are eligible to be resettled on humanitarian grounds, according to The Guardian. The US government plans to resettle almost 25,000 Afghans in the country. The UK has said it will resettle 20,000 people. Five senior Western diplomats in Pakistan told the Guardian the exit permit fee in Pakistan was unprecedented internationally and had come as a shock.

“I know it is very tough economically for Pakistan but really, to try to make money off refugees is really unattractive,” The Guardian quoted a diplomat as saying. “The issue has also been raised by the two UN agencies in the lead on this mess, the [UN refugee agency] UNHCR and [International Organization of Migration] IOM,” the diplomat added. “It has also been raised in capitals and headquarters. I suspect everyone has also passed the message to their [Pakistani contacts].” Another diplomat said that western officials had been told of the move at a briefing by the interior and foreign ministries. When concerns were raised about the fee, officials were told the initial decision was to charge USD 10,000 for each person but that had been lowered to USD 830.

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“It is very bizarre and I personally find it very frustrating. If Pakistan wants to facilitate the process of the settlement of refugees in the west then they should not make it more complicated with such absurd conditions,” the diplomat said. “What is the justification for this exit permit fee? To make a lot of money?” The exit permit must be paid via credit card, which many Afghan refugees have no access to. “This makes it worse as it should be paid by refugees and most of them don’t have credit cards. I think we need a cooperative approach of working together to help the refugees and we expect Pakistan would help,” another diplomat said.

Mumtaz Zahra Baloch, the spokesperson for Pakistan’s foreign ministry, said there was no plan to change the policy. “These individuals have been here for the last two years and they are not refugees but immigrants with overstay in their visas and lack of documents. But we expect the concerned countries would expedite the visa and approval process so that they can leave for their destination as early as possible,” The Guardian quoted her as saying.

Baloch said more information was needed to process the refugees’ resettlement because some western countries had been giving them names without further details. But a western diplomat said: “We are trying to provide information the Pakistani government is asking for, but we have legal restrictions as to how much information we can provide as well.” Babar Baloch, a spokesperson for the UNHCR, said: “The UNHCR is working with the government of Pakistan to resolve the issue of exit fines and overstay visa fees for refugees in the resettlement programme. The UNHCR advocates with the authorities for the exemption of refugees from these requirements.” He said the UN understood that the situation could cause anxiety among those who had fled to Pakistan but were eager to leave the country and restart their lives.

“Resettlement is part of a global solidarity and lifesaving mechanism for some of the most vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers,” The Guardian quoted him as saying. (ANI) Experts as well as international aid organisations have raised concerns about the lack of transparency highlighting the risk of foreigners entering Afghanistan under the guise of nationals and raised alarm over the harsh conditions faced by Afghan returnees in the country, especially during the severe winter, according to Khaama Press. There has been a significant influx of Afghan migrants with over 320,000 individuals entering the country through the Spinboldak and Turkham border crossings since November 1, Khaama Press reported.