Afghanistan’s refugee situation dates back more than 23 years. But despite decades of civil war and foreign occupation, it was largely forgotten by the world until the events of September 11, 2001 refocused the world’s attention on this war-ravaged country. 1 INTRODUCTION The horrendous terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001 have reverberated worldwide. They are likely to change the ways states and people think and act, particularly toward foreigners. Among the fundamental changes could well be how refugees and asylum seekers are received and treated, the dimensions of the U.S.
Response to the horror of September 11 were not yet known, the refugee population most likely and immediately to be affected appeared to be Afghan refugees in Pakistan. 2 (PRESENT SITUATION) AFGHANISTAN -THE LONG ROAD HOME There is a new mood in Afghanistan now. From bustling city bazaars to remote mountain valleys, people are watching with both hope and uncertainty as their country slowly begins to pick itself up after more than 23 years of war and devastation. 3 In 2002, almost 1. 8 million Afghans returned to their homeland from Iran, Pakistan and the Central Asian Republics.
They were assisted by UNHCR, the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation, and the governments of the neighbouring countries. At the same time, 230,000 internally displaced Afghans were helped to go home. Each family returning under the joint assistance programme receives a package of food and basic household items. Internally displaced Afghans returning home with the help of the UN refugee agency and its partners also receive transport back to their home regions, while those coming home from outside the country receive travel assistance.
The neediest returnees are also provided with tools, beams, window frames and doors so that they can rebuild their houses. By the end of 2003, UNHCR hopes to have helped 100,000 families reconstruct their homes. The agency continues to improve water supplies in returnee areas, and helps provide job opportunities through labour-intensive construction schemes such as small-scale road building projects – crucial in a country with an infrastructure as shattered as Afghanistan’s. 4
UNHCR staff also monitors the conditions returnees are living in, to help strengthen the new Afghan authorities’ ability to protect their people and contribute to the realisation of basic human rights through the country. 5 AFGHANISTAN: CONFLICT AND DISPLACEMENT SINCE 1978 Afghanistan has been at war for more than 23 years. Pakistan has hosted Afghan refugees for all of those 23 years. An estimated 1. 5 million Afghans have died as a result of the conflict in Afghanistan 6as many as a third of Afghanistan’s 26 million inhabitants have been uprooted from their homes.
Most have fled to neighbouring countries; others have become internally displaced. 7 Smaller numbers have migrated as far as Europe, North America, and Australia in search of refuge. In mid-2001, more that 3. 6 million Afghans were still living as refugees in other countries, mostly in Pakistan and Iran; 700,000 were internally displaced. 8 The conflict in Afghanistan began shortly after a communist government seized power in April 1978. The new regime sought to implement a program of massive agricultural reform that the uneducated, traditional rural population deeply resented and resisted.
The regime turned to force to impose the reforms, killing tens of thousands of people, but only succeeded in further alienating the population. A resistance movement soon arose; thousands of Afghan refugees fled to Pakistan and Iran. 9 The Taliban Advances The Taliban made further advances in 1996. It launched a major offensive in eastern Afghanistan that resulted in its takeover of Jalalabad, the main gateway to Pakistan, in early September. Two weeks later, the Taliban captured Kabul. The Taliban tried to push farther north, but was stopped by opposition forces.
Fierce fighting in Badghis province in November displaced an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 people. 10 In December 2000, even as the UN, donor governments, and NGOs struggled to provide humanitarian assistance to vulnerable Afghan civilians, the Security Council, spurred by the United States and Russia, voted to impose additional sanctions on the Taliban. The United States said that the sanctions were “political, not economic,” and that “trade and commerce, including in food and medicine, continue unabated.
” However, NGOs and UN agencies providing humanitarian relief in Afghanistan said that they would further strain relations between the Taliban and UN agencies and NGOs, and could put the lives of UN and NGO staff at risk or cause their withdrawal from Afghanistan, which would cripple relief efforts. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan also criticized the sanctions. UN agencies temporarily withdrew their staff from Afghanistan when the Security Council approved the sanctions. 11 Pakistan’s foreign minister warned that the sanctions would “further aggravate the humanitarian crisis… and compound the misery of the Afghan people.
” Reflecting Pakistan’s concern that the sanctions could lead to additional flows of refugees into Pakistan, the foreign minister added, “Those pushing the sanctions that will force millions to migrate or perish will bear responsibility before history for this avoidable disaster. 12 PAKISTAN TOUGHENS STANCE TOWARD AFGHANS 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 centre near Peshawar.
For months, only minimal assistance was provided to the Afghans at Jalozai and a major humanitarian catastrophe ensued. 13 Government officials say that their change in attitude was influenced by a number of factors: 1) Pakistan’s worsening economy, which officials say makes it impossible for the government to continue assisting refugees; 2) Dwindling international financial support for the refugees, which government officials say has increasingly shifted the burden to Pakistan; 3) Social problems that the government of Pakistan says are caused or exacerbated by the refugees’ presence;
4) The end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the cause of the flight of most “long-term” refugees (those who entered Pakistan between 1978 and the late 1980s); 5) The fact that the home areas of many of the long-term refugees are free of conflict; and 6)The government’s belief that many of the Afghans who have entered Pakistan since mid-2000 are victims of drought and UN economic sanctions, not of war or persecution, and therefore do not qualify as refugees. 14 UNHCR’s assessment of the reasons for the change in Pakistan’s attitude includes most of the above and some additional factors.