Afghanistan's Refugee Crisis

by Hiram Ruiz , Margaret Emery | published September 24, 2001

Over the last two weeks, an estimated 15,000 Afghan refugees have fled to Pakistan, and hundreds of thousands more are reportedly on the move within Afghanistan. This latest flight of Afghans from their homes deepens a humanitarian crisis that has troubled the region for more than 20 years. Already, some 2 million Afghan refugees are living in Pakistan and more than 1.4 million in Iran, with an estimated 30,000 in India, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and other countries. Additionally, some 900,000 people are displaced from their homes within Afghanistan. If and when the United States and its allies launch a military campaign against Afghanistan, UN officials estimate that the number of new refugees and displaced could climb past 1 million.

From a humanitarian perspective, the recent terrorist attacks and subsequent US threat of military action against Afghanistan could not have come at a worse moment. Even before the current refugee movement, the Pakistani and Iranian governments were showing impatience with the large, intractable refugee populations in their countries. Tajikistan shut its doors to Afghan asylum seekers and drought victims. International aid began to dwindle nearly a decade ago, as "donor fatigue" set in after the Cold War. Although some long-time refugees have been integrated into their host countries, living in cities and working stable jobs, more recent arrivals have been forced to live in squalid conditions, without access to adequate food, water, shelter and sanitation.

The recent withdrawal of UN international aid staff and other humanitarian groups from Afghanistan means that more Afghans, lacking desperately needed assistance, will migrate to Pakistan and Iran in search of food and medical care. Some governments, including the US, have already pledged new aid to the refugee effort. But with Pakistan, Iran and four other nations closing their borders to refugees, the situation inside Afghanistan could become catastrophic.

Two Decades of Misery

The Afghan refugee crisis dates back more than 23 years. Since 1978, as many as a third of Afghanistan's 26 million inhabitants have been forced to flee their homes, temporarily or permanently. The first wave of Afghan refugees came in April of that year, when the country's new communist regime introduced a massive agricultural reform program that the rural population deeply resented and resisted. In December 1979, the Soviet Union, concerned that the communist government in Kabul was losing ground, occupied Afghanistan and installed a puppet regime. After the occupying forces unleashed a wave of terror on the civilian population, hundreds of thousands of refugees poured out of Afghanistan. Within two years of the invasion, some 1.5 million Afghans were refugees, mostly in Pakistan.

By 1986, the number of Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran had grown to nearly 5 million. The US and other Western countries were by now supporting the Islamist resistance movement known as the mujahideen in their struggle against the Soviet-led government. At the same time, the West poured money into the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, many of which served as bases for the mujahideen. The international community did not provide similar assistance to Afghan refugees in Iran, where the 1979 revolution had put an anti-Western regime in power. In the decade after the revolution, Iran did not actively seek aid from the international community, although the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) consistently kept a presence, albeit a poorly funded one, in the country.

When the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989, they left in power another communist regime, which the mujahideen defeated in April 1992. Afghan refugees welcomed the mujahideen victory, and over the course of 1992 more than 1.4 million refugees returned home. But far from bringing peace to Afghanistan, the mujahideen conquest only opened a new chapter in the conflict, as warlords fought one another for small pieces of territory.

Enter the Taliban

In 1994, the Taliban emerged as a significant military force, capturing Kabul two years later. A Taliban offensive in the Shomali Plains in 1999 forced some 150,000 people to flee their homes. Although many of the displaced returned home in 2000, some 60,000 remained displaced, and a late July 2000 Taliban campaign displaced more tens of thousands of people, both internally and to Pakistan. Among the displaced were some 10,000 persons who became stranded on several islands in a river along the Afghan-Tajik border. Pushed back from the Tajik border by Russian patrols, the group suffered periodic attacks by the Taliban and went largely without UNHCR aid, since they were displaced persons and (technically) not refugees.

The Taliban, who control between 90 and 95 percent of Afghanistan, function as a repressive police state. Both women and men must adhere to strict behavioral codes that prevent women and girls from working, receiving necessary health care and getting an education. In some areas, despite the hunger and grinding poverty fueled by the drought, the Taliban have obstructed international relief efforts. The Taliban's ban on the cultivation of poppies (used to make heroin), while welcomed by the international community, left thousands of farmers who grew the crop without any livelihood, and forced many landless laborers to migrate to camps for internally displaced persons, or to Pakistan.

Over the past year, Afghanistan's refugee crisis has been exacerbated by the worst drought in 30 years. After inadequate rain and snowfall led to poor crops, tens of thousands of Afghans abandoned their homes in search of food beginning in June 2000. By year's end, some 350,000 Afghans had become newly displaced, many of them due to the drought, others due to the war. Another 172,000 had fled to Pakistan. In early 2001, tens of thousands more Afghans sought refuge in Pakistan or became displaced within Afghanistan, and by August 2001, an estimated 900,000 Afghans had been internally displaced, most living with friends or relatives in Afghanistan's larger towns and cities.

Why They Flee

Twenty-three years of unrelenting conflict, widespread human rights abuses and more recently acute drought have created devastating humanitarian conditions in Afghanistan. Over the course of Afghanistan's civil war, warring factions have repeatedly violated human rights and international humanitarian law, engaging in indiscriminate aerial bombardment and shelling, summary executions, rape, persecution on the basis of religion and the use of anti-personnel mines.

Afghanistan reportedly has the highest infant, child and maternal mortality rates, the lowest literacy rate and life expectancy, and one of the two or three lowest levels of per capita food availability in the world. In October 2000, the UN Commission on Human Rights special rapporteur on Afghanistan asserted that the country was in "a state of acute crisis—its resources depleted, its intelligentsia in exile, its people disenfranchised, its traditional political structures shattered and its human development indices among the lowest in the world."

In May 2001, the World Food Program warned that more than 1 million Afghans were facing famine conditions, and in September reported that in some areas, people were surviving by eating grass and locusts. Although the UN and other aid agencies have for years supplied food and other assistance to the Afghan population, since the September 11 terrorist attacks, all international aid workers have withdrawn, leaving only a skeleton staff of local UN employees in place.

Host Country Fatigue

In recent years, Pakistan has displayed a hardening attitude toward its 2 million Afghan refugees, reflected in periodic border closings and attempts to close long-term camps. Refugees have experienced harassment and violence, while the government has deported, and possibly returned to persecution, thousands of Afghan refugees.

From the late 1970s through the early 1990s, the international community lavished substantial assistance on Pakistan, the refugees and the mujahideen, but in recent years has significantly scaled back its assistance, leaving Pakistan to manage the refugees on its own. Today Pakistan's faltering economy, weakened in part by economic sanctions imposed by the US and other countries, has prompted a backlash against Afghan refugees, who the government of Pakistan says take jobs from local people. The government also blames refugees for increased crime and social problems, such as drug use and prostitution.

The government of Pakistan takes the position that since the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan—which caused most "long-term" refugees to flee—has ended, refugees should return home. Further, the government claims that the home areas of many long-term refugees are free of conflict, and that many Afghans who have entered Pakistan since mid-2000 are victims of drought, not refugees. Pakistan, a long-time supporter of the Taliban, may be under pressure from its own Islamic extremists to repatriate the refugees, whose presence in Pakistan reflects poorly on the Taliban. Since consolidating its grip on power in most of Afghanistan, the Taliban has also tried to impose its policies on Afghan refugees in Pakistan, warning refugees not to send girls over the age of eight to schools and ordering teachers in refugee schools to limit lessons for girls under age eight to verses from the Quran.

Pakistan's changed attitude toward Afghan refugees had its most serious impact on the estimated 200,000 Afghans fleeing conflict and drought who arrived in Pakistan between mid-2000 and early 2001, particularly those who sought refuge at Jalozai transit center near Peshawar. For months, only minimal assistance was provided to the Afghans at Jalozai, and between January and June 2001, at least 95 refugees, weakened by hunger, dehydration and disease, died of exposure.

The more than 1.4 million Afghan refugees in Iran, many of whom have lived there for nearly two decades, have also faced growing hostility and intolerance from their host country. Claiming that refugees take scarce jobs away from local people, Iranian officials have made it clear that they no longer welcome Afghans. Beginning in 1997, the government set several deadlines for refugees to leave the country, declined to register new arrivals from Afghanistan as refugees, attempted to round up and confine refugees to camps, and at times summarily deported them. Hostility toward Afghan refugees reached a new high in late 1998 and early 1999, when mobs attacked and in some cases killed Afghan refugees, demanding their deportation. Iran deported about 100,000 Afghans in 1999, many of whom were repatriated after roundups in the eastern provinces and urban centers. Nonetheless, as many as 200,000 Afghans may have fled to Iran between late 2000 and August 2001. During the same period, Iran forcibly repatriated an estimated 82,000 Afghans.

"Humanitarian Coalition"?

As the threat of US military action against Afghanistan becomes more acute, a new refugee exodus from Afghanistan could accelerate the descent of the regional refugee situation into humanitarian disaster. As suggested by UNHCR chief Ruud Lubbers, the US and the rest of the international community should at least devote the same efforts to building a "humanitarian coalition" as they have to building a military one. UNHCR has issued an appeal to international donors for an additional $6 million. Meanwhile, internally displaced Afghans will likely face even greater risk than those who attempt to cross borders. A strong response from the international community, and a commitment to maintaining an aid network—inside Afghanistan as well, if feasible—could help ensure that fleeing Afghans do not become incidental victims of the US war against terrorism.

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