By the end of 2016, aid officials predict that over 1.5 million Afghan migrants will return to Afghanistan – either voluntarily or by force. Since 1979 and the early 1980’s, Afghans have been fleeing the country, first due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, then the rise of the Taliban in the 1990’s, and lastly because of the Afghan War in 2003. Millions of people sought refuge in neighboring Pakistan and others went on to countries in Europe. Decades later, these countries have decided to repatriate their refugees and recent asylum seekers. This comes at a time when Afghanistan is still a dangerous place given that Taliban forces are still in power and poses a great threat to these returning populations.
For over 30 years, Afghanistan has produced the largest number of refugees and other undocumented migrants who left the country. In 2015 alone, there were over 1.7 million people of concern from Afghanistan, which included refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people. Beginning in the 1970’s, during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, families began to leave the country in the first wave of refugees. According to the United Nations, almost 3 million fled to Pakistan while 1.5 million fled to Iran, and over half the population was displaced internally across rural areas. During this time institutions, infrastructure and the entire Afghan economy were hurt by war and instability.
The Soviets were driven out by rebel forces in 1989 after a ten-year-long occupation. Following Soviet withdrawal, various factions emerged and were embroiled in conflict, causing political upheaval. A second wave erupted out of Afghanistan in another exodus of refugees with over 6.3 million people – mostly ethnic minorities – fleeing to Pakistan and Iran. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) began developing repatriation projects in over 300 villages in Pakistan in the hopes to resolve political stability so that refugees could return home.
Despite efforts to improve government relations, Afghanistan fell to Taliban rule between 1992 and 1993. As the Taliban gained control over Afghan territory and eventually the capital of Kabul, more people fled the country. Humanitarian and aid efforts to help the millions of refugees and undocumented migrants, permanently living in refugee camps and other makeshift shelters, increased. Pakistan and Iran, in particular, had the greatest number of Afghan refugees in the world, many of them living below the poverty line.
By 2001, the UN helped repatriate over 4.6 million Afghans from Pakistan and Iran but this came amid continuing turmoil within the country. Some of the most severe problems included the almost 9.7 million landmines, which the UN was working to eradicate, and the years of drought that provided little resource for agriculture or food. Repatriating Afghans during these unsustainable living conditions further impeded Afghanistan’s ability to restructure itself and provide any sort of self-sufficiency. Aid continued to pour into the country without a proper foundation.
Finally, following the September 11th attacks on the United States by members of Al-Qaeda, the U.S. launched attacks against the Afghan militant group, causing millions to flee. This time, however, Pakistan resisted much of the influx of refugees who came streaming across their border. Pakistan had grown wary of Afghan refugees and the limited assistance from the international community to help them deal with the problem. Those who weren’t able to escape to Pakistan or Iran found their way to Europe and managed to resettle there.
Today, the number of Afghan refugees is comparable to that of Syrian refugees – with some families continuing to flee Afghanistan due to political and economic devastation. Pakistan, Iran, and countries in Europe have decided to deport and repatriate many of the Afghan refugees and migrants in their countries. Pakistan has the largest number of Afghan refugees and migrants – over 1.3 million – who have made a home in the country for the last few decades. After the Afghan government fostered new ties with India, Pakistan’s long time enemy, the Pakistani government no longer intends to be hospitable to the Afghan refugees. Over the past few months, Pakistani officials have given the refugees till the end of the year to acquire the appropriate documentation, gather their belongings and make their way across the Torkham border gate, which separates Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Violence has broken out between Pakistani officials and Afghan refugees over the last year. The refugees claim officials and police officers have been harassing and assaulting individuals and threatening them to leave the country. Some refugees – who have lived in Pakistan for years and built families – have been forced to close their businesses or go into hiding due to the threat of violence.
Europe has also recently signed an agreement with the Afghan government to return tens of thousands of migrants who had their asylum applications rejected and other undocumented people who will be deported. The deal is set to deport an unlimited number of migrants back to Afghanistan with assurance that aid from the European Union will support the Afghan government in repatriating its people. This comes as a shock to major international organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch – both of which were appalled by the secret deal. While the deal doesn’t violate any major human rights law, it does neglect the fact that millions of Afghans will now face internal displacement, economic and political instability, poverty, and an overall lower quality of life.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.