March 18 (UPI) — The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said Afghan citizens who have fled to Pakistan will have to wait longer before they can return to their native country, because the coronavirus outbreak has hindered repatriation efforts.
The UNHCR said its voluntary repatriation centers in parts of Pakistan have been “closed until further notice” due to the spread of the coronavirus disease.
“We have temporarily suspended voluntary repatriation due to the extenuating circumstances,” UNHCR Deputy Representative Iain Hall said Tuesday. “The UNHCR’s utmost priority is to support global efforts on lessening the spread and impact of COVID-19, and to assist the government of Pakistan with its comprehensive preparedness and response plans.”
Pakistan is supporting more than 1.4 million Afghan refugees. About 4 million have returned to Afghanistan since 2002 with help from the UNHCR’s voluntary repatriation operation.
The program took a three-month break for the winter before starting up on March 2, but the spread of the coronavirus disease has forced the UNHCR to change its resettlement efforts.
“[The International Organization for Migration] and UNHCR are taking steps to suspend resettlement departures for refugees,” the U.N. agency said. “This is a temporary measure that will be in place only for as long as it remains essential.
“As resettlement remains a life-saving tool for many refugees, UNHCR and IOM are appealing to states, and working in close coordination with them, to ensure that movements can continue for the most critical emergency cases wherever possible.”