1. Regional Overview: 40 Years of Protracted Displacement
Afghan refugees — the second largest refugee population in the world
After nearly four decades of protracted displacement, Afghan refugees still constitute just over 13 per cent of the global refugee population1 and one-fifth of the world’s protracted caseload, accounting for more than half of the 4.1 million refugees in protracted displacement of 20 years or longer.2 With almost 2.6 million registered refugees, Afghanistan remains the second largest country of origin in the world.
While Afghan refugees are dispersed across more than 80 countries, an overwhelming 91 per cent of them continue to be hosted by just two countries — the Islamic Republics of Pakistan and Iran. Half of the Afghan refugee population are children below 18 years, underlining the vulnerability of the displaced communities and stressing the need for urgent, prioritized responses.
In addition to registered Afghan refugees, according to the estimates of host governments, there are 1.5 to 2 million undocumented Afghans in the Islamic Republic of Iran and between 350,000 to 550,000 in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. In 2017, both Governments initiated country-wide exercises to identify the undocumented Afghan population in their respective territories and to facilitate the issuance of documentation, including Afghan national passports.
The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan — voluntary return, sustainable reintegration: key to stability in Afghanistan and the region
Over the past four decades, the voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees has taken place in waves, notwithstanding the often challenging circumstances in their homeland and new outflows of refugees during times of conflict. Between March 2002 and September 2018, over 5.2 million Afghan refugees have repatriated with UNHCR assistance through the largest voluntary repatriation programme in its history. While in 2016 there was a spike in returns to Afghanistan, with more than 370,000 refugees returning from Pakistan and Iran, refugee returns declined to 58,800 in 2017 and 12,785 as of September 2018. At the same time, significant numbers of undocumented Afghans have returned from Pakistan and Iran, with nearly 693,000 returns recorded in 2016 and some 561,000 in 2017;4 as many as 562,000 have returned as of September 20185. Additionally, internal displacement has intensified across the country, with an estimate of more than 554,000 Afghans internally displaced due to conflict and drought between January and September 2018.6 While reliable figures are not available on displacement in areas not under the control of the Afghan Government, UNHCR and OCHA estimate there to be at least 2 million IDPs in the country as of September 2018.
The increased numbers of refugees returning in 2016 and undocumented Afghans in 2016-2018 to certain areas in Afghanistan, especially to Kabul, as well as continued displacement to urban areas due to ongoing conflict, added further pressure on community services and social infrastructure in Afghanistan affecting its absorption capacity. UNHCR has identified 14 key areas of high return within Afghanistan that will benefit from enhanced support and coordinated action, through Community-Based Protection Measures (CBM) in partnership with development actors and the Afghan Government.
In light of Afghanistan’s deteriorating security situation and limited absorption capacity, it is critical to seek solutions to the crisis, promote responsibility sharing regionally and globally, and foster robust and effective linkages between humanitarian action and development initiatives to ensure the long-term sustainable reintegration of all returnees.
The Islamic Republic of Iran – host to one of the world’s largest urban refugee populations
Providing for close to 1 million registered Afghan refugees, the Islamic Republic of Iran currently ranks as the fifth largest refugee hosting country in the world. Of these refugees, 97 per cent reside in urban or semi-urban areas across the country. The remaining three per cent live in 20 government-run refugee settlements. The majority of Afghan refugees in the Islamic Republic of Iran known to UNHCR originate from central, western and northern provinces of Afghanistan and are primarily of Hazara ethnicity. Other ethnic groups include Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and other minorities.