Needs and Responses
During the mujahideen era, Afghanistan was the ‘largest and fastest repatriation programme [ever] assisted by UNHCR’ (Ruiz 2002). Despite the voluntary nature of the repatriation, inadequate repatriation assistance, and infighting between the various mujahideen groups which seized power after the Soviet withdrawal, led once again to a climate of insecurity. Kabul and Kandahar were insecure for both civilians and humanitarian workers and as a result, UNHCR was not assured of unhindered access to returnees. By 1993, the rate of return had declined although repatriation continued, most of them being spontaneous returns. Repatriation continued throughout the rest of 1990s, a reflection of the ever changing political and security situation in Afghanistan and the access to assistance in Pakistan and Iran.
Despite optimism at the end of the Soviet occupation, which on the face of it provided a change in circumstances allowing for the return of large numbers of refugees, conditions on the ground did not ensure the durability of repatriation. In the absence of a sustainable political solution, the country was once again embroiled in civil war. As a result, protection and assistance measures could not be assured and certainly the standard of return in ‘security and dignity’ could not be upheld.
Throughout this period, neighbouring countries such as Pakistan and to a lesser extent Iran, hosted the refugees. Pakistan largely welcomed the refugees and Western nations, showing a willingness to share the burden to support the refugees by giving generously to the aid agencies involved. Although the political tensions between Iran and Western nations did not facilitate similar types of Western support to Afghans in Iran, refugees were ‘welcomed’ in the sense that they were allowed to work and more or less ‘integrated’ into society. But they were provided little in the way of formal protection and assistance.
The Taliban era (1994-2001)
Throughout this period, ensuring protection and assistance for Afghans in neighbouring countries, as well as within Afghanistan, in the post-Cold War era has been fraught with challenges. In Pakistan, assistance budgets of UNHCR and the WFP withered, and threats to the personal security of humanitarian workers – both nationals and internationals - hampered their ability to provide assistance. As a result of reduced assistance for refugees in Pakistan, a perceived favourable change of circumstances in the country of origin by some, and a diminishing relationship with the government of Pakistan, some refugees were prompted to return. As Afghans took on a more visible presence in Pakistani society, and the financial implications of hosting large numbers of refugees became evident, Afghans faced harassment from the Pakistani authorities. It was not uncommon for refugees to be blamed for country’s growing social and economic ills. Return was voluntary for the most part, but only occurred to certain areas of Afghanistan (Ruiz 2002).
During this period, official repatriation had been stopped but spontaneous returns from Pakistan were not uncommon. Despite the fact that the security in vast tracts of the country had improved since the mujahideen era, the presumptive rule of the Taliban did not represent a favourable change in circumstance in the country of origin which would allow for the return of vast numbers of refugees. Those who did return, did so on the understanding that they should return to areas where they might find ethnic affinity with either the Taliban or the Northern Alliance. In the case of the Taliban-controlled areas, they were also required to abide by restrictions on personal rights and fundamental freedoms. Conditions in Afghanistan were determined for the most part by information shared between refugees, who from time to time would return to parts of the country. UNHCR activities in Afghanistan were characterised by relief type interventions in the form of Quick Impact Projects (QIPs) and refugee returnee monitoring.
By the late 1990s, tensions between the international community and the Taliban grew, culminating in the imposition of sanctions in 1999. Humanitarian workers were evacuated for a short period during which time rioting led to the destruction of UN offices and the looting of relief supplies. Growing anti-UN sentiment and internal tensions within the movement hampered the assistance effort.
As conditions within the country declined, conditions in the neighbouring countries of asylum – both Iran and Pakistan – also rapidly deteriorated. In 1999, harassment of Afghans in the urban areas in Pakistan was widespread. As Ruiz (2002) reports,
[p]olice in Pakistan’s major cities stopped undocumented Afghans and deported many who did not pay bribes. In June 1999, police demolished the stalls of a number of Afghan traders at a market in Peshawar and assaulted the traders and the Afghan customers. Later that year, local authorities in Baluchistan pushed back across the border 300 Afghan asylum seekers and forced thousands of Afghan refugees who had been living in Quetta to move to camps.
At the same time, Iran was engaged in a programme of forced return which saw the end of temporary protection status for many Afghans who had sought refuge there. UNHCR, in an effort to halt deportations, was able to establish screening centres in Iran. But like Pakistan, Iran had grown tired of hosting the refugees and seized every opportunity to both stop the entry of Afghans (by closing its borders on the basis of concerns for national security caused by a breakdown in relations between the two countries), and to deport many who had remained in Iran for extended periods of time.
In Pakistan, another mass influx came in 2000 as a result of heavy fighting in the north and deepening effects of the worst drought in 30 years. As a result, UNHCR estimated that more than 172,000 Afghans entered Pakistan in 2000 (Ruiz 2002). This time, in response to this influx and as a result of frustration with the international community, Pakistan did not offer temporary refuge. Rather it closed its border with Afghanistan in November 2000, signalling Pakistan’s weariness with playing host to Afghan refugees. Throughout the US bombing campaign in Afghanistan in late 2001, Pakistan continued to keep their borders with Afghanistan closed, effectively preventing Afghans from seeking asylum. This was despite promises from the international community to assist. Similarly, Iran limited border crossings, and even deported 2,000 Afghans during the final months of 2001.
The border closures on the Pakistan side were on the one hand driven by fear of being inundated by refugees, and on the other, a direct result of requests by the US to keep borders closed as a security measure. These closures, whatever the reason, represent a blockage at the frontier which is equivalent to violating the principle of non-refoulement. ‘Afghans were refused the right to seek asylum abroad and refoulement was implicitly condoned’ (van Selm 2002). At the same time, despite the grave physical danger faced by the populace, both Pakistan and Iran continued to deport Afghans. In the last months of 2001, Iran limited border crossings and deported 2,000 Afghans. Both cases are examples of international and domestic security concerns taking precedence over protection obligations. There is also evidence that within Afghanistan, fear of being harmed by the US-led coalition bombing campaign led to further displacement within the country.
- Human Rights Watch
- Refugee Crisis in Afghanistan
- Afghanistan: US Bombs Kill Twenty-three Civilians
Bonn Accord (2001-2005)
Despite changes in Afghanistan’s political situation, the population continued to flee in late 2001 in search of better economic opportunities. The UK continued to be the destination of choice. Many western countries were asked to turn away Afghan asylum seekers and to assist in their repatriation. The ATA also put measures in place which would prevent people from leaving. For those Afghans who had already left the region, tripartite agreements were put in place in mid-2002 which aimed to enable the EU to push ahead with plans to repatriate approximately 500,000 refugees residing in various EU countries. At the same time, both France and the UK agreed to focus on the voluntary return of the refugees. But neither have ruled out the possible need to force repatriation in the future. Immediate plans included the organisation of extra flights and cooperation with local authorities. Such agreements included safeguards to ensure that Afghans who still required international refugee protection were not neglected. In order to ensure repatriation was conducted in a ‘phased, orderly, and humane’ manner, to some extent facilitated repatriation, which was delayed until the spring of 2003 so as to ensure conditions were appropriate for return. All agreements which were entered into were in compliance with the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol.
The conditions of return varied depending on the household and the place to which refugees returned. Although some returnees have been able to accumulate wealth in exile, most have lived in poverty with few assets or little savings upon which to draw on in their country of origin. For those returning in 2001 and late into 2002, an assistance package was provided including USD 20 per person for travel and transport costs, 50 kg of wheat per family of four, mine awareness-training, and an assortment of non-food related items. Health agencies also established a system for immunizing school age children. Across the country, a number of programmes were provided by UN agencies and NGOs to assist the government in rebuilding infrastructure, improving services, constructing shelter, and in the creation of sustainable livelihoods. But many of these were focused in urban areas where access was easier and returnee numbers were significant. Efforts to meet the minimum standards for return and resettlement of both returning refugees, and IDPs around the country, were not always met.
Protection issues continue to represent a significant challenge. Throughout the war, sexual violence, arbitrary detention, and forced recruitment were commonplace. These human rights violations continued to occur in parts of the country (particularly in the north) with significant consequences for civilians and aid organisations. Specifically, there were reports of harassment of ethnic Pashtuns in the north by new leaders, who are ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks. Of the estimated 700,000 displaced people throughout the country, 400,000 are in the south and up to 15 per cent of them are thought to be Pashtuns who fled their homes in the north in fear of persecution following the Northern Alliance offensive late in 2001.
For some, return to certain parts of Afghanistan continued to be fraught with security concerns in late 2002. In those areas where many violent acts had taken place over the past years of fighting, retribution by local commanders (such as the stealing of crops and forcible recruitment) was cause for concern. To address these security concerns, particularly for ethnic minorities from the north, a Return Commission was established to help refugees and IDPs go back home. The Commission played a central role in facilitating the return of a large number of IDPs in the south of Afghanistan and refugees in Pakistan who were minority groups in northern areas. Initiatives such as the bringing together of commanders and communities were measures undertaken which paved the way for return. By late 2002, there were no attempts, however, to compensate victims of violence and displacement for lost property and land. The Commission represented a first step in the promotion of sustainable return and contributed to the effort of promoting greater adherence to the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.
Fear of continued insecurity, cold winter temperatures, and lack of access to services prompted some of the new arrivals to return to Pakistan creating a situation of reverse migration. Although the numbers were initially small, the trend signified the need for continued support from the international community to refugees in neighboring countries. There was also evidence that families were choosing to migrate to urban areas for the winter months or until the situation in rural areas improved. Insecurity throughout the country prompted some to call for measures to be put in place which would ensure that repatriation of Afghan refugees was voluntary and that return would only take place in situations of safety. Specifically, there were concerns that in the push to repatriate, refugees would not be able to remain in safe countries until conditions of ‘safe and voluntary’ return could be guaranteed.
Human Rights Watch criticized UNHCR for encouraging governments to return refugees before the security situation inside the country was safe to do so. UNHCR later cautioned governments on return and in July 2002, suspended assisted returns to Faryab, Samangan and parts of Balkh province in northern Afghanistan. The UNHCR also raised concerns about the speed of the returns which questioned the ability of communities to adjust to the influx of returnees, thereby exacerbating an already tense security situation. UNHCR guidelines stress that return should not take place unless the majority can return ‘in safety and dignity’ and the country of origin has provided ‘a formal guarantee, or adequate assurances for the safety of repatriation refugees’. By late 2002, there was continued concerns that these conditions had not been met. The expansion of ISAF beyond Kabul was at the centre of the debate on the appropriateness of refugee repatriation. In late 2003, the UN Security Council passed UN Resolution 1510 which authorized expansion of ISAF throughout the country. At the same time, a programme of Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) of former combatants was implemented by the government with support of the UNDP with the aim of improving security across the country and to extend the influence of the state. The programme was launched in 2003 and was completed in 2006. The programme has had mixed results – particularly with regards to the demobilization of soldiers, as many illegal armed groups remain.
- Relief Web
- European Council on Refugees and Exiles
- Human Rights Watch
- Afghan New Beginnings Programme
Although the current situation is relatively more stable than prior to 2002, the situation in southern Afghanistan remains volatile and a number of issues continue to be a concern in the repatriation process. Firstly, there are concerns over the ongoing coercion and harassment of refugees in Pakistan calling into question the true ‘voluntary’ nature of repatriation. Reports of harassment and deportations in Pakistan – particularly in urban areas –are widespread. Refugees in all cities alleged eviction notices and police harassment, while some refugees were reported having to pay substantial bribes in order to escape abuse by the police.
Secondly, the situation in some parts of Afghanistan –particularly in the south - does not ensure return in safety and security owing to the continued presence of land mines, the destruction of homes, and on-going fighting due to the resurgence of the Taliban. Despite years of de-mining, Afghanistan is still heavily mined, presenting considerable risks, especially in rural areas. Many of those affected by landmines or lack of shelter tend to go to the cities like Kabul. In an attempt to address the lack of housing in Kabul, as well as the population explosion which has put considerable pressure on already overstretched public services, the government launched a plan to assist returnees by providing them with housing in their province of origin. For many of those who lacked land for housing, the government launched a land-allocation scheme under which it has distributed property to thousands of landless Afghans repatriated to northern and eastern Afghanistan.
On-going fighting in Southern Afghanistan has also hampered the return of refugees from this area. Around 90,000 people fled Panjwayi and Zhari districts in Kandahar province in September 2006 during combat between ISAF and local Taliban. Some 28,000 of these people returned to the two districts at the end of December 2006. Others have remained in urban areas such as Kandahar or with relatives in villages until they believe they can return home. Return home is made particularly difficult by the fact that many houses and productive assets were destroyed.
In the north, there is continued concern for returnees of particular ethnic groups. For example, the large majority of people who have returned to the north are ethnic Pashtuns. Although ethnic-based tensions in the north have seen a marked improvement, there have been reports of threats of illegal taxation and returnees finding land occupied.
Poverty as a result of landlessness and limited income-earning opportunities are ongoing issues of concern. Many of the refugees and internally displaced are returning to places where they either have no land, or they return only to discover that their land is occupied or has been confiscated. The government has found it difficult to address competing property claims as registration books and documents are being forged or have been lost. Despite billions of dollars in aid assistance, the formal economy in most parts of the country is struggling and income-earning opportunities are limited and standards of living remain low. Landless families have tended to migrate to urban centres where the labour market is more diversified and education opportunities are greater. This has resulted in a dramatic increase in urban slums and deplorable living conditions. Since late 2001, the population of Kabul, for example, has increased from 1.5 million to an estimated 4.5 million people. Whilst the population has increased 300 per cent between 2002 and 2006, the physical size of Kabul has only increased by 35 per cent.
- US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
- Human Rights Watch
- Afghanistan: slow progress on rights and security
- Numbers repatriated (March 02 to July 06), their ethnicity and educational status
- Urban livelihoods in Afghanistan
Rural/urban migration within Afghanistan
Rural to urban migration in search of employment opportunities and access to better services and infrastructure has been a trend in Afghanistan since the 1960s, but has been more common during the recent period of refugee return. This is particularly the case amongst landless returnee populations. A study conducted in 2005 by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) found that 71 per cent of migrants from rural areas were indeed landless. Furthermore, the majority of those who migrate tended to be young adults, with an average age of 31 years. Approximately 50 per cent of these migrants moved to urban centres with their families, while the others left families behind and instead sent money back to their villages.
For the majority of those who had remained in rural areas, the migrants’ income constituted the household’s main source of income. Seasonal migration is also common amongst rural populations, even amongst those with land. This is due in part to the fact that families have increased in size and land is no longer adequate to support larger rural populations (given limited improvement in agricultural productivity and infrastructure). It is also due to the fact that the protracted drought has resulted in a severe depletion of assets which would otherwise supplement a farmers income. Finally, urban migration has been found to be common among returnees, particularly those who have spent a number of years in urban centres in the country where they sought asylum. Despite the problems faced by the migrants such as finding a job or adequate and affordable housing, many of the respondents felt that they had managed to improve their economic situation through migration. The length of time in which they had remained in an urban centre correlated positively with an overall improved economic situation.
Migration for economic reasons to countries outside Afghanistan, such as Pakistan and Iran and the Gulf region is also common. In smaller numbers, there is also migration to Europe and North America. Around 70 per cent of migrants in the study referred to above were found to have migrated to countries outside Afghanistan at some point in their lives, in search of work or other opportunities. Wage levels in Pakistan, Iran and the Gulf region are higher than in Afghanistan. In addition, religious, linguistic and cultural affinities play a major role in attracting people to one country over that of another. Shia Afghans tend to migrate to Iran whilst Sunnis prefer to go to the Gulf region. Importantly, households that have one or more members abroad are less likely to be ‘poor’ than households that have one or more members who have migrated to another region within Afghanistan, or those where all family members have remained within their region of origin. Economic migration is an important coping strategy for Afghans, and indeed the wider economy. While the banking system in Afghanistan has improved significantly since 2002, banks still only exist in large city centres and the banking culture is still being developed. An alternative to sending remittances home is the hawala system. This is an elaborate and effective means of avoiding the Islamic prohibition on interest rates, and is a substitute for lack of financial institutions in the country.
- Relief Web
- Bound for the city: A study of rural to urban labour migration in Afghanistan
- Moving out of Poverty Migration Insights from Rural Afghanistan
- World Bank
- Afghan Trans-national Networks: Looking Beyond Repatriation
- Trans-national networks and migration from Faryab to Iran
Throughout the war, women were victims of systematic violence. Under the Taliban regime, the situation worsened as women faced discrimination and strict controls on dress, behaviour and mobility. Women were excluded from public life, and girls were banned from attending school. During the US-led military action in Afghanistan, women continued to experience considerable difficulty in getting access to aid and in some parts of the country and fear for personal security increased. Women continued to face harassment, sexual violence, and restrictions on mobility. Although access to education, healthcare and employment has improved in urban areas (such as Kabul). But this is less so in smaller centres where the lives of many rural women remain virtually unchanged. In both rural and urban areas, many women continue to wear the burqa which is due in part to traditional cultural practice, but is also an indication of concern for personal safety. It is rare for women to travel far from home without a male relative (maharam) to accompany them. In addition, laws still exist which discriminate against women and violate international customary law and international treaties to which Afghanistan is a signatory. On a positive note, 40 per cent of the overall parliamentary membership should be comprised of women, which is beyond the quota stated in the constitution. Their presence in the parliament is however contentious and some women experience and harassment and even threats to their lives.
- Human Rights Watch
- Afghanistan New War Puts Women’s Rights in Peril
- Afghanistan: Women Still Under Threat
- Paying for the Taliban’s Crimes
Some 23 years of war has generated an estimated 1.5 to 2 million widows. In conservative cultures, widows face unique challenges. This is particularly the case for those residing in urban areas where they have minimal kinship support and a weaker social network than their rural counterparts. With the return of refugees from Pakistan and Iran, widows are particularly vulnerable to internal displacement, as they are pushed from rented homes by returning refugees. In addition to the problems of shelter, food, limited income and a lack of legal right to property, many suffer from psychological trauma. A number of NGOs and UN agencies have established programmes which aim to address these needs.
- CARE Special Report
Children have been immensely affected by years of poverty and conflict. In 2002, an estimated one-in-five children died of preventable diseases before the age of five, and one-in-two suffered from malnutrition. Throughout the conflict, both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance actively recruited child soldiers – predominantly from madrassas in Pakistan or rural areas throughout Afghanistan - in violation of the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and the Convention of the Rights of the Child. In addition, Afghanistan is among the most densely mined countries in the world and children are often the victims of more than half of all landmine accidents.
Despite efforts by the international community, children in Afghanistan continue to be vulnerable. Victims of child labour have limited access to healthcare and education. In recent years, there have been reports of an increase in the trafficking of children – for labour, sale of their organs, and prostitution. Girls are particularly at risk of trafficking for sexual purposes, and especially refugee and IDPs girls.
- Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children
- Human Rights Watch
- Amnesty International Children’s Human Rights
International and governmental organizations dealing with refugees and IDPs
The Government of Afghanistan
To facilitate returnees’ needs and improve government responses, the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation (MoRR) was established by the ATA. The ministry has the overall responsibility for the returnee and IDP programme and is supported by a Consultative Group on Refugees and IDPs which includes: government ministries, UN agencies, NGOs and donors (see IDPs ). The Consultative Group’s role is to support the MoRR in coordinating and facilitating work related to the return and initial reintegration of refugees and the internally displaced. The other government ministries involved include the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD) and the Ministry of Urban Development and Housing (MUDH).
In 2003, the government began implementing a National Return, Displacement and Reintegration Strategy, followed by a specific Regional Operation Plan for the internally displaced in the south. The strategy’s main objective was to find sustainable long term solutions to the problems faced by the displaced over a period of three years, whilst continuing to provide assistance and protection.
In April 2004, the MRRD developed a National IDP Plan which encouraged a shift from care and maintenance to promoting the return of internally displaced to their areas of origin while ensuring reintegration and co-existence with receiving communities. As part of this plan, the MRRD launched a national land allocation scheme to benefit landless people including (but not exclusively) landless returnees. By September 2006, some 300,000 plots of governmental land had been identified, from which about18,000 plots had been distributed.
In August 2004, the MoRR in partnership with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and UNHCR set up the Employment Service Centre to facilitate the returnee population’s search for work. The Centre is linked to other initiatives and potential employers. Whilst the Government is making significant steps forward in tackling the issues faced by returnees and IDPs, its ability to do so is seriously hampered by the fact that it is still highly dependent on foreign aid.
All humanitarian and human rights activities performed by the UN are coordinated by a central organising body - the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) - whose purpose is to provide support to the government. UN involvement is presently focused on, and limited to, Kabul and other major cities. Because of this, and the growing unrest in the south combined with ongoing drought, NGOs and governments have called for UNAMA’s coordination capacity to be strengthened and its field of operation enlarged to cover some rural areas as well. This process is underway and there are now fifteen field offices throughout the country. This expansion reflects the need to deepen UN presence and to a lesser extent, to enable coordination with the ISAF-led Provincial Reconstruction Teams which are now in 25 locations around the country.
UNAMA has eight regional offices and a number of sub-offices. UNAMA aims to engage in political developments at the national and the sub-national level. But they are also very much geared towards the development agenda. Humanitarian activities are taken up as required, but actually play a small role in their overall agenda. The previous focus on relief/recovery/reconstruction has been reviewed and retagged as the reconstruction and development pillar. Many aspects which should be managed by the government at the provincial level are supported by UNAMA, particularly coordination. UNAMA does not programme for development, although it does assist in humanitarian response in times of emergency.
UNHCR is the UN organization which is primarily responsible for Afghanistan's internally displaced with support by the humanitarian arm of UNAMA (under pillar 2). UNHCR’s role is to support the MRRD in assisting the internally displaced and integrating the needs of returnees into long-term national development projects. Since 2002, UNHCR has assisted 2.89 million Afghans to return home from Pakistan and over 830,000 Afghans to repatriate from Iran.
WFP provides a range of relief and recovery activities to IDPs and returnee populations in the form of gifts of food aid, food-for-work, food-for-training and food-for-education. These projects are implemented in partnership with the Afghan government and other UN agencies including UNHCR, UNICEF, as well as Community Development Councils (which have been formed under MRRD’s National Solidarity Programme) and NGOs. In the first half of 2006, WFP-assisted 118,000 IDPs with 4,200 metric tons of food.
NGOs have played an important humanitarian role in Afghanistan, providing assistance to Afghan refugees since 1979. By November 2003, more than 1,600 NGOs were registered with the Ministry of Planning. Whilst the majority of NGOs are Afghan, the largest programmes are implemented by international or multinational NGOs. Most of the NGOs provide emergency relief, health, education and agricultural programmes. A small number of NGOs are also involved in peace building, human rights and advocacy work.
In addition, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Federation of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent and the Afghan Red Crescent carry out a range of activities related to protection, rehabilitation and development programmes, according to their various mandates.
Insecurity, poor access, and a reduction in aid budgets are the major challenges currently faced by national and international agencies in their attempt to deliver humanitarian relief to populations and returnees in need. At the same time, the most pressing issues faced by the internally displaced and returnees are those which are shared by the wider population - the lack of infrastructure and services, limited income–earning opportunities, inflation, protracted drought and resulting loss of assets, as well as rights-based issues such as securing access to land and property. In order for refugees and the internally displaced to return home voluntarily - in dignity and safely – these issues must be tackled across the country.
- Global Appeal
- Relief Web
- List of NGOs in AFG and Programmes
- Afghan labour market
- Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI)
The following list of international NGOs is not exhaustive but contains those agencies that have been active in Afghanistan for a number of years or are well known organizations:
Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) (formerly Strategic Monitoring Unit)
JEN (formerly Japan Emergency NGOs)
National Program for Action on Disability (formerly Comprehensive Disabled Afghan’s Program)
Norwegian Project Office
UN Development Program (UNDP)
UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)
UN Humanitarian Air Service (UNHAS)
UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM)
United Nations Childrens Fund (UNICEF)
UN Joint Logistics Centre(UNJLC)
United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)
World Food Programme (WFP)
Department for International Development , UK (DFID)
Asian Development Bank (ADB)