A Nation Displaced: The world's largest refugee population
by Kathleen Newland and Erin Patrick
This article was published in Volume 14, Number 4, Fall 2001 of WorldView magazine, published by the National Peace Corps Association. Reprinted with permission.
The movement of Afghans in the late 20th century and the early 21st continues on an epic scale. But today it is less the result of the pursuit of treasure, territory or an outlet to the sea than a product of the search for safety. One in four of the roughly 26 million Afghans alive today is or has been a refugee. The vast majority are in neighboring states, particularly Iran and Pakistan, but they can be found in nearly every corner of the world, from the former Soviet Union to Europe, North America, Australia and beyond.
Afghans have comprised the largest refugee population in the world for nearly two decades. Conflict ensures that such population displacement will continue until relative peace and security allow the people of Afghanistan to go home.
The modern movement of people out of Afghanistan is complex, with waves of overlapping departures and returns following political and military milestones such as the overthrow of King Zahir Shah in 1973, the Soviet invasion of 1979, the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989, the triumph of the Taliban in 1994 and 2001's U.S.-supported military campaign to oust the Taliban. The ebb and flow of refugees is further complicated by movements of people from one place to another within the country, driven by fighting or by the drought that has gripped the country-particularly the north and Central Highlands-for four years. Ethnic and geographic affiliations influence the direction and duration of flight.
Geographically, Afghanistan can be divided into six regions, each with different ethnic characteristics. The northeastern section of the county is largely Tajik, whereas the northwestern provinces consist of Uzbeks and Turkmens. The capital, Kabul, is a mix of several ethnicities, including Pashtuns, Tajiks and Nuristanis. The southeast is dominated by the Pashtuns, while the southwest, like Kabul, is more mixed, consisting of Tajiks, Pashtuns and Chahar Aimaks. The remote, mountainous center of the country is inhabited almost exclusively by various Hazara tribes.
The most populated area of Afghanistan is the corridor between Kabul and Charikar, just northwest of the capital. Apart from a few other important cities such as Kandahar and Herat, the rest of the population is small farmers and nomads, spread unevenly around rivers or oases.
The two most widely used languages are Pashtoo (spoken by people of Pashtun ethnicity) and Dari (also called Farsi), an Afghan-Persian dialect. A smattering of other Indo-European and Turkic languages are also spoken to various degrees in different regions.
Religion plays a central role in daily life. Nearly all Afghans are Muslim; however there are important differences of ideology among the Muslim sects. Three-quarters of the population is Sunn'i; one-quarter, largely Hazara, is Shi'ite.
Social statistics paint a dire picture of modern Afghanisatan. Life expectancy is 44 years, 25 percent of children die before they reach the age of five and half of the population is under 15. An estimated 60 percent of men and 90 percent of women are illiterate.
The economy is based on farming of wheat and cotton, and the illegal growing of opium poppies. Rural families raise livestock for domestic meat and dairy consumption and for leather and wool. Less than 20 percent of Afghans are nomadic herders. Exports of cotton textiles, animal skins, carpets and natural gas go primarily to the neighboring republics to the north, some to the United Kingdom and Germany.
Afghanistan owes its rich and varied history and, therefore, the diversity of its population to its geographical location at the center of Asia. Historically, the city of Kabul was the crossroad between the east-west and north-south trade routes that passed between the Indian subcontinent and Central Asia as well as between the Far and Middle East. Afghanistan's second-largest city, Kandahar, was key to the southern route of the ancient "Asian Highway," and various other Afghan cities sustained themselves by providing food, shelter and services to merchants traveling the Silk Route from China to Europe.
Many of these traders would end up staying in the region, eventually blending with or living alongside peoples left in the area as a result of dozens of invasions from regions as distant as Greece and Mongolia, ultimately creating the complex ethnic structure seen in Afghanistan today.
Topography also played a key role in the development of such a structure. An Afghan legend claims that after God finished creating the earth, he took the leftover debris and threw it onto the ground, making the steep mountain ranges and plunging gorges seen throughout almost all of Afghanistan. The story may be legend, but the geography is real: dozens of ethnic groups were, until perhaps the 20th century and subsequent modernization of transportation, able to live more or less harmoniously, each hidden in and protected by the myriad mountains and valleys. A good example of this phenomenon is the Hazaras, a people of Mongol ancestry who live almost exclusively in the inhospitable Central Highlands. Because of their near-total isolation, the Hazaras have been able to maintain their own customs, dialect (Hazaragi) and religious beliefs (Shi'ism).
Power struggles among the different ethnic groups were commonplace, helping to give the Afghans their reputation as formidable warriors. King Zahir Shah, a Pashtun, brought a measure of stability to the country, though the writ of government did not run very strong beyond the capital city and surrounding areas. His reign was a period of modernization in both economic and social dimensions. After 1959, women were no longer required to wear the veil and were encouraged to attend secondary school and university. Many women were employed in government. As a result of their dominance in the capital and the growing social divide between city and countryside, Pashtuns gained privileged access to jobs in the modern economy.
Indeed, for most of more recent Afghan history, the southern Pashtuns have maintained at least nominal control over the entire country, often subjugating smaller ethnic groups such as the Hazaras. Until the Taliban came to power, though, Afghan leaders had traditionally allowed the persistence of what amounted to fiefdoms throughout the country, with local warlords negotiating, purchasing or simply practicing autonomy.
NEW REFUGEE CRISIS
The contemporary story of Afghan migration can be divided into roughly four chapters following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The story began with the creation of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan in 1978 and the subsequent Soviet invasion in 1979, which caused massive emigration (mostly in the form of refugee flows to Pakistan and Iran) as well as large-scale internal displacement from rural areas to the relatively safer urban areas. During the 1980s, more than 6 million Afghans became refugees. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that, at the peak of the crisis between 1988 and 1991, there were 3.5 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, 2 million in Iran, and almost a million more in other parts of the world. According to a 1996 report by the UNHCR, Afghans fled their homeland for many reasons, including a fear for their own safety, forced conscription into the Soviet army or even possibly in response to a call for hijra, or flight from a formerly Islamic land now occupied by unbelievers. Inside the country, during the Soviet occupation there were an estimated 2 to 3 million internally displaced, and the population of Kabul grew from 600,000 to 2 million people.
The withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989 caused a second and entirely new wave of population movements, both in (the return of those who had fled the Soviets) and out (the flight of many Soviet sympathizers). UNHCR estimates that between 2 to 3 million Afghans forced out during the occupation returned voluntarily after the Soviet pullout. Factional fighting and soon outright civil war prevented many more Afghan refugees from feeling secure enough to return. What is most interesting about this time period, however, is the complexity of the population movements: former refugees returning to their homes, new refugees fleeing the country, formerly displaced persons returning and entirely new groups of internally displaced persons fleeing first the villages (citing fears of attacks on home and property) and then, once the civil war began in earnest, the cities (citing fear of political persecution, arrest and forced conscription). All combined, the new flows meant that, even after the return of 2-3 million Afghans in the early 1990s, UNHCR estimated that by 2000 there were again nearly 5 million Afghan refugees and 800,000 internally displaced persons.
It was during this time in Pakistan's free, private, Koranic boarding schools for boys, known as madrassas, that the Taliban movement-taliban is the plural of the Arabic word for "religious student"-had its beginnings. During the 1980s and early 1990s, the ranks of the madrassas were filled with Pashtun refugee boys. These schools were popular within the Afghan refugee population because the teachers were well-respected and offered an education that many could not find in the camps. Madrasa students were taught that a cure for the factional fighting and lawlessness that took over the country almost immediately after the defeat of the Soviets could lie in the institution of a strict Islamic state.
Beginning from their traditional homeland in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban opened the third chapter of this modern migration with what was to be a quick takeover of most of the country in 1994. The Taliban's model for Afghan society, however, differed from that of the majority of Afghan citizens. The Taliban are Durrani Pashtuns, from the most conservative ethnic group in the country, and the madrassas in which they were trained were supported by the most extreme Islamic sects such as the Wahabbis of Saudi Arabia. Though Pashtuns are a majority in southern Afghanistan and a plurality overall, they are not fully representative of Afghan ideology. Their interpretation of Sharia, and particularly of so-called "Islamic" punishments, is in fact an extreme reading of an ancient Pashtun tribal code called pushtunwali, a code that has not been accepted nor followed by the vast majority of Afghans, including many Pashtuns themselves. The strictures placed by the Taliban on the activities and movements of women were draconian even by conservative Afghan standards.
A new wave of refugees fled the Taliban's restrictions, harsh enforcement practices, and suppression of dissent in slow yet steady increments from 1994 to 2001. By and large, these "new" refugees were those who lost the most as a result of Taliban edicts: women, the educated, moderate politicians and religious minorities.
The fourth and most recent major movement is still unfolding in the winter of 2002. There are, however, several trends worth mentioning. Movements following the U.S. engagement in the war against the Taliban were both external (to Pakistan) and internal (largely away from cities presumed to be targets for American bombs). Not all new refugees were fleeing the bombings: many cited fear of forced recruitment into Taliban armies as the primary reason for their flight. Still others had exhausted their resources after years of drought and were compelled to move in search of subsistence in a refugee or internally displaced persons settlement.
Many of the latest to flee were not permitted to cross the border into a neighboring country weary of decades of hosting Afghan refugees. Both Iran and Pakistan have officially closed their borders to new cases. Iran is supplying IDP camps close to its borders in an effort to assist people without taking new refugees, while Pakistan has allowed UNHCR to transport a small number of the most vulnerable cases on its border to refugee camps in Pakistan.
As the war winds down and post-war arrangements take shape, one can expect to see movements not unlike those witnessed after the Soviet withdrawal: repatriation combined with a new exodus, perhaps this time of Taliban supporters and/or those fearing reprisals by Northern Alliance factions. This story remains to be told. Large-scale return of refugees may constitute a fifth chapter of the modern migration saga of the Afghan people.
The future of Afghanistan has perhaps never seemed as uncertain as it does today. The voluntary return of the more than 5 million refugees to their homeland is, of course, the goal of many humanitarian agencies, but it would present a formidable challenge to a country trying to recover from the wounds of war. Birth rates in the camps have been extraordinarily high for many years. Combined with a population growth rate which some have placed as high as 15 percent in Afghanistan's rural areas, the practicality of rapid, massive repatriation must be carefully scrutinized in order to avoid potential conflicts over land and scarce resources, such as water.
Further, 20 years of civil war have broken down the beginnings of what Magnus and Naby call "national sensibilities" that were beginning to sprout by the 1970s, especially in the cities. Before the arrival of the Taliban, religion was central to this drive for unification. One wonders if Islam can play the same role after its exploitation at the hands of the Taliban.
No repatriation scheme can work without societal structures to deal with a new blend of people and ideas. With thousands of weapons circulating throughout a battle-scarred and war-hardened country, Afghanistan will need the steady and prolonged help of the international community to create political and civil-society structures that are capable of more than prolonged conflict.
Within Afghanistan, camps for the internally displaced have swelled since the beginning of the U.S. campaign against terrorism. The majority of these camps for the internally displaced are found in the west, near Herat; in the Panjshir Valley and in the surrounding province of Badakhshan; and in the southern border area near Kandahar. Two of the largest internally displaced persons camps, Makaki and Mile 46 in the southwestern Nimruz province, are run by the Iranian Red Crescent Society to keep Afghanistan's internally displaced populations from adding to Afghan refugee population already in Iran.
Pakistan has also felt the effects of the latest population movements, and has forced most of the newly-arrived refugees into camps in the border regions. Such camps are worrisome for refugee protection agencies, as they are largely controlled by tribal authorities rather than the Pakistani government and are subject to security and health concerns. One example is Jalozai camp near Peshawar, which was intended only as a temporary staging area but, out of necessity, now serves larger, more long-term populations. Some refugees are being transferred to newer sites, and more camps are being constructed in the region by U.N. High Commissioner for refugees in spite of growing pressures from the Pakistani government for the refugees to be returned.
Over the years, Afghans have also created a large diaspora. In addition to Pakistan and Iran, Afghans have fled to the neighboring Central Asian republics and to India. Between 50,000 and 100,000 now live in Russia, and there are large Afghan communities in Europe, particularly in Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. In North America, roughly 60,000 Afghans live in the San Francisco Bay area, about 20,000 in New York, and other large populations have settled in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles.
Kathleen Newland is co-director of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. Erin Patrick is the institute's associate policy analyst for refugee protection.
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