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E.g., 06/22/2024
Afghanistan: Displacement Challenges in a Country on the Move

Afghanistan: Displacement Challenges in a Country on the Move

AfghanChildren MMaguire UNHCR

Repatriated Afghan children, born in a camp in Pakistan, play in front of a shelter in Takar province. (Photo: M. Maguire/UNHCR)

Few countries have witnessed the scale of population movements that Afghanistan has experienced during what is now approaching almost four decades of war. Successive waves of conflict between rival internal and external powers and their proxies have made the country almost synonymous with insecurity and displacement. Far from abating, that insecurity has in fact progressively worsened over the past decade, with civilian deaths from combat increasing during seven of the past eight years. In the context of a chronically weak state unable to impose the rule of law, extreme poverty (Afghanistan has the lowest human development index ranking outside Africa), and a heavy dependence on subsistence agriculture in an inhospitable and often drought-afflicted climate, it is unsurprising that many millions of Afghans have been driven to leave their homes and seek shelter both within and beyond the borders of their country.

Even before the conflict-driven movements of recent decades, Afghanistan has had a lengthy history of migration, stretching back to the Silk Road days. The borders established in the nineteenth century had the effect of splitting up ethnic groups between Afghanistan and its neighbors—thereby fueling movement between the countries. In particular, Pashtuns straddle the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, while Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmens, and Balochs retain cross-border ties to Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Balochistan (in Pakistan) respectively. Shia Hazaras (in predominantly Sunni Afghanistan) also share religious connections with Shia Iran. Of Afghanistan’s two official languages, Pashto is the second most widely spoken language in Pakistan and Dari (spoken by Tajiks and Hazaras, among others) is a dialect of Farsi, the language of Iran.

Owing to these connections as well as geographic proximity and the presence of functional labor markets, the vast majority of those displaced from Afghanistan since 1978 have crossed porous borders into Iran and Pakistan. Nearly 6 million Afghans—roughly two-fifths of the country’s population—fled to Iran or Pakistan from 1979 to 1989, and the number in each country has since fluctuated with each significant intensification or weakening of conflict, resulting in mass exoduses followed by limited returns until 2001. Meanwhile, smaller numbers of Afghans have headed to the Gulf states, India, Turkey, or Europe.

The U.S. and allied invasion and overthrow of the Taliban government in 2001 represented a watershed moment for Afghan refugees. In the following decade, 4.6 million registered refugees returned home, largely from Iran and Pakistan, marking the largest assisted returns process in history. The returns have proved challenging for a country that is simultaneously grappling with rapid urbanization and ongoing internal displacement while its capacity to offer government services remains weak. Although the numbers of voluntary returns subsequently dropped off, millions remain abroad today. Returns—both voluntary and involuntary, though the distinction in the Afghan case is often blurry—have begun to tick upward again since 2015 (and surged in 2016), the result of increasingly restrictive policies by host countries where patience for refugees is wearing thin. Only in January 2015, at the height of the Syrian crisis, did Afghans finally lose the status that they had held for 30 years as the world’s largest refugee population.

Table 1. Top Hosts for Registered Afghan Refugees, 2016

Note: Data do not include Afghans living abroad without documentation.
Source: UN High Commissioner for Refugees, “Population Statistics – Data – Persons of Concern,” accessed November 6, 2017, available online.

Beyond those who have left, growing numbers of Afghans have become internally displaced. More than 1.5 million people (around 5 percent of all Afghans) were deemed to be in a displacement situation inside the country in 2017, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), though such figures should be treated with caution as it is difficult, if not impossible, to precisely track and categorize these population movements.

This country profile explores historical and contemporary migration patterns in Afghanistan, including displacement from and returns to the country, attempts to develop migration policies, and emerging and ongoing migration and displacement challenges facing the government and international organizations. 

A History Marked by Movement

For centuries, migration has been a way of life for many Afghans. Historically, Afghanistan’s key location along the Silk Road made it a link between East and West and a prominent trading country. Kuchi pastoralists continue to live a traditional nomadic life, moving seasonally with their cattle, while for others, labor migration abroad has long been a source of income and remittances in times of hardship.

Following the 1973 oil boom and amid lackluster economic development and increasing taxes at home, many Afghans sought employment abroad. As growing numbers of Pakistanis took up work in oil-rich Gulf states, Afghans took over their vacated jobs in Pakistan. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Afghan workers migrated to Iran, where they worked in construction and agriculture and enjoyed higher wages than in Afghanistan. Both governments welcomed the influx of cheap labor.     

Consecutive Waves of Displacement

In 1978, a communist faction seized power in a coup and set about implementing social and land reforms that proved deeply unpopular among much of the population. The following year, the Soviet Union sent troops to Afghanistan to prop up the struggling government, imposing an even more hardline communist regime in the process. The occupation unleashed the first in a series of bitter conflicts triggering mass displacements.

As the United States and regional powers joined forces to support the insurgency against the Soviet-backed government, Iran and Pakistan initially welcomed the estimated 6 million refugees who flooded over their borders. Pakistan, which received large levels of international financial support, built a number of refugee camps, though it began using them to divert substantial amounts of aid to insurgent groups. Meanwhile, Iran received far less international assistance due to its pariah status following the Islamic revolution, and created few refugee camps as a result, leaving most Afghan refugees to settle among the wider Iranian population.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, the Russian-backed Afghan government clung onto power before finally succumbing in 1992 to the forces aligned against it. The country swiftly descended further into civil war as rival warlords vied to fill the power vacuum—fueling another wave of migration. The fighting continued until the mid-1990s when the Taliban, a hardline Islamic group backed by Pakistan, seized control of much of the country.

By this time, attitudes in Iran and Pakistan toward refugees had begun to harden and calls for the eventual return of all Afghans were growing more strident, despite the Taliban’s oppressive rule. Iran launched a repatriation program in 1992, and subsequently granted newly arriving Afghans a lower status than earlier waves had held. As a result, more than 1.3 million Afghans returned voluntarily from Iran between 1992 and 1995. In 1997, both Iran and Pakistan officially stopped registering new Afghan refugees. International nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and UN agencies continued to provide support during this time, both within Afghanistan and to Afghan refugees in Pakistan, though at a much-reduced level compared to the 1980s.

Following the U.S. invasion in 2001, the Taliban government quickly fell, and unexpectedly large numbers of refugees swiftly opted for return, overwhelming the ability of international organizations to process them and assist with logistical and humanitarian support. While the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) struggled to raise sufficient funding, in 2002 alone 1.8 million registered refugees returned to a desperately poor country where even the most basic social services barely functioned.

Returns and Reintegration

Though the volume of returns was a sign of confidence in the new government, the scale of the challenges facing the country quickly became evident. In addition to the myriad state-building tasks on its plate, Afghanistan was now faced with reintegrating massive numbers of refugees. Many returnees lacked land after decades in exile, or returned to find their properties destroyed or appropriated in their absence. Meanwhile, many chose to relocate to urban areas in order to access urban labor markets and continue the lifestyles they had known in exile, substantially swelling the size of Afghan cities. Existing labor markets quickly became saturated and public services, where they existed, inevitably came under strain.

By the end of 2004, more than 3 million registered refugees had returned, and the government acknowledged the need to facilitate their reintegration. To accomplish this, it created the Land Allocation Scheme to provide unused government land to returning refugees and, in theory if not in practice, to IDPs. The plan was signed into law by presidential decree in 2005.

Under the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation (MoRR), one of the weakest ministries of the government, the scheme suffered from poor planning and endemic corruption. Aside from problems selecting beneficiaries, most sites were located on barren land far from urban centers, and as such were not economically viable. Unable to eke out a living in the designated areas, most returnees given plots abandoned them, many heading to informal settlements within cities.

Other initiatives spearheaded by UN agencies and NGOs have been more successful. For example, UNHCR’s shelter program provided building materials to more than 220,000 returnee families between 2002 and 2011. However, meeting the needs of vulnerable populations within Afghanistan is complicated by overlapping governmental and organizational mandates, and by the blurred, often invisible, distinctions between categories of people. While UNHCR is responsible for refugees and refugee returnees, IOM leads on unregistered returnees and natural disaster IDPs, and the Protection Cluster, under the overall management of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), coordinates assistance to conflict-affected IDPs. The agencies are not equal in terms of budgets and institutional power, and the inevitable risk is that the populations championed by the most powerful actors—rather than the most vulnerable—receive the most support.

Nor have the agencies always worked well together. The most notable example of interagency dysfunction occurred when nearly 250,000 Pakistani refugees fleeing conflict crossed into the Afghan provinces of Khost and Paktika in 2014. Finding these Pakistani humanitarian migrants mixed in among IDPs and ordinary Afghans, UNHCR and OCHA initially clashed over how best to coordinate the response. For many observers, these disagreements reflected negatively on both organizations and detracted attention from more pressing topics. As of June 2017 an estimated 125,000 Pakistani refugees remain in Afghanistan, the majority of whom are living among the wider Afghan civilian population rather than in camps.

Following the sizeable early returns, the numbers of new returnees began to drop off, as most of those with immediate plans to go back had already done so. Pull factors in Afghanistan also began to weaken as job openings fell and the Taliban insurgency strengthened (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Refugee Returns to Afghanistan, 2001-16

Source: UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Global Reports, 2001-16 (Geneva: UNHCR, various years), available online.

A decade after the 2001invasion, with new returns at an all-time low, refugee reintegration began to slip off the agenda of development donors who sought to align their programming ever more closely to Afghanistan’s National Priority Programs (which did not focus on reintegration). Meanwhile, humanitarian donors began to shift their attention away from returns and toward the growing problem of internal displacement. 

In this context, UNHCR was eager to reignite interest in returns and reintegration, and to do so in 2012 it launched the high-profile Solutions Strategy. The plan had its detractors, however, and was criticized for an unrealistic and flawed operational model for reintegration in Afghanistan and an overambitious approach to fundraising. Aside from refocusing attention on UNHCR’s mandated target group, one of the principal objectives of the strategy had been to incentivize Iran and Pakistan to abstain from policies pushing out refugees, in exchange for increased funding and international attention to the topics of return and reintegration. While the plan did succeed in providing a platform for regional discussions between the three countries (though even this did not bear the fruit its architects had hoped for), it failed to deter Iran and Pakistan from hardline policies toward refugees (see below).

Nevertheless, A Success Story?

Despite the enormous challenges that returnees continue to face, there are nevertheless reasons to consider the reintegration process a success overall—at least in the sense that returnees are not worse off than average Afghans.

Since 2011, a number of surveys—including those by the U.S. State Department, Maastricht University, and Afghanistan’s Central Statistics Organization—have sought expressly to compare returnee and nonreturnee populations, finding returnees to be either on par with or slightly better off than average Afghans. Reasons for this may include generally higher levels of education among returnees than for Afghans who have not left the country, savings built up in exile, the cumulative impact of the reintegration and shelter grants provided by UNHCR, or simply the fact that returnees are more likely to live in cities where greater employment opportunities are available.

However, this conclusion is controversial as it runs counter to UNHCR’s findings on reintegration in recent years, which have formed the basis for its narrative of returnees as a comparatively disadvantaged population within the country. This in turn served as a major impetus for the development of its Solutions Strategy, and supported its advocacy in reengaging international interest in refugee return and reintegration. Nevertheless, the claims were made on the arguably shaky grounds of a 2011 survey that contained just one question assessing the situation of returnees compared to other Afghans, and the full report conceded that it was not in a position to make comparative judgments with other sections of the population.

Deteriorating Conditions in Exile

Meanwhile, less controversial is the fact that life has become progressively harder for Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan. As security deteriorated in Afghanistan and the economic miracle expected by some did not materialize, voluntary returns gradually plummeted, falling from nearly 113,000 in 2010 to below 17,000 in 2014. At the same time, Iran and Pakistan have become ever more impatient for the residual population of Afghans to leave.

In Iran, Afghans have been subject to ever-growing restrictions regarding where they can live, the jobs they can hold, and services they can access. Notably, Iran banned Afghan children from attending public schools in 2003 (though it is now gradually relaxing this rule). Pakistan meanwhile began to close some refugee camps in 2004, leaving many Afghans with little choice but to return to Afghanistan. Discrimination and official harassment have also progressively, and markedly, increased in both countries.

International efforts to demonstrate burden sharing and increase awareness of returns and reintegration have also had limited impact in restraining Iran and Pakistan from pushing more strongly for return. For instance, despite being partly designed to promote purely voluntary returns, less than one month after the launch of the Solutions Strategy, Pakistani authorities publicly announced that they would not extend the validity of Proof of Registration (PoR) cards issued to Afghan refugees beyond the end of that year, though they eventually relented for a while. In 2016, Pakistan finally fulfilled its threat and ordered all Afghans to leave the country. More than 500,000 registered and unregistered refugees returned to Afghanistan following “a toxic combination of deportation threats and police abuses,” according to Human Rights Watch, amounting to “the world’s largest unlawful mass forced return of refugees in recent times.” Faced with international pressure, the Pakistani government relented in 2017 and announced it would renew the PoR cards, though only until the end of the year.

Iran has also sought to strip registered refugees of their internationally protected status. The country has offered temporary work and residence permits in exchange for relinquishing official refugee registration documents (known as Amayesh cards), in what is seen by many as a prelude to forced return.

In Iran and Pakistan, it has become almost impossible for new arrivals, or those missed by UNHCR registration processes in the early 2000s, to obtain official refugee status. As a result, in 2017 between 600,000 and 1 million unregistered Afghans lived in Pakistan alongside the 1.4 million registered refugees, while more than 2 million unregistered Afghans lived in Iran, twice the population of registered refugees, according to UNHCR and Iranian government estimates. In practice, the majority of registered and unregistered Afghans are likely to have been forced into exile for similar reasons.

By and large, Iran and Pakistan have been able to deport unregistered populations without fear of international sanction. Thus, as voluntary returns have dropped off, deportations of unregistered Afghans have increased. From 2007 to 2015, between 200,000 and 300,000 Afghans were deported annually from Iran and Pakistan combined. In recent years the number of unauthorized returnees has dwarfed the number of registered returnees who hold a Voluntary Return Form (VRF) entitling them to support from UNHCR.

Figure 2. Annual Afghan Returns by Category, 2012-15

Source: International Organization for Migration (IOM), Undocumented Afghan Returns from Iran and Pakistan (Kabul: IOM, 2016), available online; and UNHCR, Global Reports, 2012-15 (Geneva: UNHCR, various years), available online.

Returns from the European Union

Though fewer than those in Iran and Pakistan, many Afghans have made their way farther afield. In 2015 some 364,000 lived in Saudi Arabia, primarily working in low-skilled jobs such as construction. The same year, roughly 63,000 Afghans lived in the United States and 46,000 in Canada, including many resettled refugees.

Further, Afghans lodged more than 386,000 asylum applications in Europe during the height of the European migration crisis in 2015-16—second only to Syrians. Afghans, however, have been less successful in their asylum claims: In 2016, roughly 56 percent of Afghan asylum applications were approved, compared to 98 percent of applications filed by Syrians.

To facilitate failed asylum seeker returns, European countries have long worked to negotiate bilateral agreements with Afghanistan. Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom all concluded returns agreements prior to 2008. Due to continued insecurity in Afghanistan, deportations, when they have occurred, have attracted criticism. With growing public concerns in Europe about migration management in recent years, however, facilitating returns for rejected asylum seekers has become a priority for the European Union. At a high-level international conference on Afghanistan held in Brussels in October 2016, Afghanistan and the European Union reached a comprehensive agreement on returns. Though the European Union claims that the deal is not a condition for the financial pledges made at the conference, totaling $15.2 billion in development aid until 2020, it is still regarded as controversial by some.

Statistical data on voluntary and forced returns to Afghanistan from the European Union are lacking, due to conflation of both kinds of returns following failed asylum attempts. However, during the first half of 2014, 13 of the 21 EU Member States that responded to an ad hoc request for information from Slovakia said they carried out forced returns to Afghanistan. During this period there were 227 voluntary and 326 forced returns to Afghanistan from these countries; more than three-quarters came from Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Norway. In practice the distinction between forced and voluntary returns should not be overemphasized, as the category known as voluntary assisted return includes many Afghans who have already been ordered to leave the country.

In absolute terms, the number of Afghans returning from the European Union is tiny compared to the returns from Iran and Pakistan. For comparison, during the first half of 2014, approximately 200,000 Afghans spontaneously left or were deported from Iran alone, 400 times the number of those returning either forced or voluntarily from Europe. Yet unsurprisingly, returnees from Europe represent a particular focus of attention for European states, many of which have recently stepped up their assistance to these populations. Increased removals have also led, in some countries, to the formation of active antideportation movements.

Growing Insecurity Amid Returns

Migration activists oppose deportations to Afghanistan in part because the country is in some ways more dangerous than ever, or at least since 2001. Violent conflict has intensified year after year, with ever more civilians getting caught in the violence: More than 5,200 civilians were killed or injured in the first half of 2017, compared to about 3,100 over the same period in 2012.

As a result, internal displacement has been on the rise, with up to 1.5 million people forced from their homes to other locations within Afghanistan as of June 2017. However, this trend should be treated with some caution as determining who is an IDP versus an economic migrant, identifying the point at which one ceases to be an IDP, and keeping track of constantly moving populations while avoiding double counting have not been easy tasks. On the other hand, there is little doubt that IDPs are among the most vulnerable people in Afghanistan. Numerous studies have shown that IDPs in Afghanistan tend to have much higher than average levels of indebtedness, food insecurity, illiteracy, and unemployment, and that large numbers do not have secure land tenure.

The Afghan government has struggled to effectively meet the needs of these populations or even, at times, to admit that the problem exists. IDPs often end up squatting illegally and are not always well received by resident populations, and until recently the prevailing attitude among authorities was that they should return home. To counter such attitudes and pave the way for local integration, UNHCR helped shepherd the drafting of a comprehensive national IDP policy, which President Hamid Karzai approved in 2014. The rollout of the policy has not been entirely smooth, however, and knowledge of it, particularly outside Kabul, remains low. Attitudes are slowly changing though, and President Ashraf Ghani, who took office in 2014, announced a keen determination to better address the problems of IDPs. Results so far have been limited.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

In some ways the prospects for Afghan refugees are grim. Pressure for them to return is increasing, while security in Afghanistan has not improved and economic growth is at risk of stalling. Since the early 2000s, UNHCR has consistently pushed for a regional approach that encompasses local integration and a transition to a legal migration regime for the many unwilling to return home but for whom a traditional refugee designation would not necessarily apply. In the face of implacable opposition from Iran and Pakistan to such long-term local integration, however, that prospect seems as distant as ever.

With international aid to Afghanistan at risk of dropping off, no end to the insurgency in sight, and levels of under- and unemployment remaining stubbornly high, it is difficult to imagine pull factors for return becoming much stronger in the near future. Afghan refugee populations in exile are therefore likely to continue living precariously between a rock and a hard place for some time to come.


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