Afghanistan + 2 more

USCR Country Report Afghanistan: Statistics on refugees and other uprooted people, Jun 2001

Originally published
At the end of 2000, some 3.6 million Afghans were living as refugees in other countries. A large majority were in Pakistan and Iran, which hosted 2 million and 1.48 million, respectively. Some 38,000 were in other countries in the region. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), some 172,000 Afghans fled to Pakistan during the year, and 28,790 sought asylum in Europe.
It was difficult to estimate with any accuracy the number of Afghans internally displaced because of conflict, but the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) believed the figure to be about 375,000. Another 140,000 Afghans were internally displaced in western (70,000) and southern (70,000) Afghanistan primarily because of drought.

Some 76,000 Afghans repatriated voluntarily from Pakistan during 2000. More than 133,600 repatriated from Iran under a UNHCR-assisted "voluntary" repatriation program. Another 50,000 Afghans returned from Iran without UNHCR assistance, some under pressure from the Iranian authorities. Because UNHCR did not monitor the return of this group, and because there were reports that Iran deported some among them, USCR considers up to 50,000 returns to have been involuntary.

Events Prior to 2000

More than 20 years of war have left Afghanistan completely ravaged. Historically a poor country, Afghanistan's per capita income is one of the lowest in the world. Its infant mortality rate, 200 deaths per 1,000 infants, is among the world's highest.

Conflict began in Afghanistan shortly after a communist government seized power in 1978. That sparked an exodus of Afghan refugees into Pakistan and Iran that mushroomed after the former Soviet Union invaded and occupied Afghanistan in 1979. In the early 1980s, exiled Afghans launched an armed opposition to Soviet rule that turned Afghanistan into a major Cold War battleground. The United States and its allies provided both military assistance and humanitarian aid to strongly Islamic opposition forces known as mujahedin.

The conflict between the mujahedin and the Soviets continued throughout most of the 1980s and ended only after Moscow, under heavy domestic and international political pressure, agreed in 1988 to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. Significant numbers of refugees did not return home, however, until 1992, when the mujahedin ousted the communist regime that the Soviets had left in power. More than 1.4 million Afghans repatriated that year.

In subsequent years, infighting among the various mujahedin factions deterred many Afghans from repatriating, sent hundreds of thousands of new refugees into Pakistan and Iran, and internally displaced large numbers of people. In the mid-1990s, the radical Islamic Taliban faction gained momentum and seized control of southern Afghanistan and Kabul. In the late 1990s, opposition forces continued to battle the Taliban in northeastern Afghanistan and other areas.

The Taliban, comprised mostly of ethnic Pushtuns, enforces rigid behavioral codes on the population (women must be covered from head to toe, and men must grow beards) and restricts women's and girls' access to health care, employment, and education. The Taliban spends few resources on social services for the civilian population, devoting most of its income to the war effort, which it funds in part through drug trafficking. Afghanistan has become the world's largest producer of opium.

In mid-1999, the Taliban launched a major offensive into the Shomali Plains, north of Kabul. It pushed the mostly Tajik and Uzbek Northern Alliance opposition forces out of the Plains and caused more than 150,000 civilians to flee to the Northern Alliance-controlled Panjshir Valley and to Kabul. By the end of 1999, the Taliban controlled more than 90 percent of Afghanistan.

Developments in 2000

Many of the Afghans who were displaced from the Shomali Plains in 1999 returned home in 2000. However, some 60,000 remained displaced in the Panjshir Valley, an area that continued to experience sporadic conflict. Thousands of others remained displaced in Kabul.

In late July, the Taliban launched another offensive. It seized Bangi in early August, and on September 6 captured Taloqan, the Northern Alliance's headquarters and the last major Afghan city outside of Taliban control. Taliban forces then advanced farther north, almost to the Tajik border. At year's end, the northeastern province of Badakshan was the only province fully under opposition control. The Taliban offensive displaced tens of thousands of people, both internally and to Pakistan.

Humanitarian assistance to displaced, war-affected, and other poor Afghans suffered as a result of inadequate donor funding. The UN sought more than $220 million for its programs in Afghanistan in 2000 but received only 48 percent of that amount.

The most severe drought to hit Afghanistan in more than 30 years exacerbated harsh conditions for Afghan civilians. The severity of the drought became clear early in the year. In February, the World Food Program (WFP) warned that a lack of rain and snow could lead to poor crops in the summer of 2000. In early June, the UN said that three to four million Afghans could be severely affected by the drought. WFP and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working in Afghanistan sought to forestall large-scale displacement by distributing food in some of the most affected areas. However, they did not have sufficient food or manpower to reach all affected areas. Beginning in June, tens of thousands of Afghans abandoned their homes in search of food.

During early 2000, some observers perceived a relaxation of Taliban restrictions on women's employment and access to education and health care. In July, however, the Taliban proclaimed a ban on Afghan women working for UN agencies and NGOs. It arrested and deported an American woman who had lived in Afghanistan for 30 years and had headed an NGO that assisted women to work in their homes.

On August 16, the Taliban ordered WFP to close the 24 bakeries it operated in Kabul because they were run by women. The bakeries provided subsidized bread to more than 7,000 poor families, most headed by women. The following day, the Taliban gave permission for the bakeries to reopen, although the edict banning women from working theoretically remained in place. During a September visit to Afghanistan, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata emphasized the international community's concern about the Taliban's policies toward women.

In December, the UN Security Council, spurred by the United States and Russia, voted to impose additional sanctions on Afghanistan. The UN first imposed sanctions on Afghanistan in November 1999. A report by the Office of the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Afghanistan, issued in August 2000, said that the 1999 sanctions "had a tangible negative effect on the Afghan economy and on the ability of humanitarian agencies to render assistance to people in the country."

The new sanctions sought to stop the flow of arms to the Taliban and to punish it for continuing to harbor Osama bin Laden, a Saudi businessman whom the U.S. government accuses of masterminding terrorist attacks against U.S. targets. NGOs and UN agencies providing humanitarian relief in Afghanistan criticized the December 2000 sanctions. They said that the sanctions 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.

At year's end, the UN Commission on Human Rights special rapporteur on Afghanistan summarized the situation in Afghanistan as follows: "Afghanistan remains in a state of acute crisis - its resources depleted, its intelligentsia in exile, its people disenfranchised, its traditional political structures shattered, and its human development indices among the lowest in the world."

Movement to and from Pakistan and Iran

From 1996 to 1999, UNHCR estimated the "official" Afghan refugee population in Pakistan to be some 1.2 million, but conceded that as many as 2 million other Afghans were probably living in Pakistan without documentation. During 2000, UNHCR revised its estimate of the "official" refugee population to 2 million, of whom 1.2 million lived in refugee villages. (See Pakistan.)

A new Afghan refugee influx into Pakistan began in June 2000 and accelerated rapidly in October, following heavy fighting in northern Afghanistan. UNHCR said that more than 172,000 Afghans entered Pakistan during 2000, the vast majority in the last few months of the year. Most of the new refugees were members of ethnic minorities, mainly Tajiks from Takhar and Parwan provinces, and Uzbeks and Turkomans from throughout northern Afghanistan.

During the year, 76,000 Afghan refugees repatriated from Pakistan. Widespread drought in Afghanistan probably contributed to that figure being lower than UNHCR had hoped at the start of the year. UNHCR assistance to Afghan returnees from Pakistan focused on projects aimed at providing refugees the resources to survive upon return. UNHCR provided extended families, or even entire repatriating communities, a six-month supply of food, seeds, and materials to help rebuild their homes.

UNHCR also provided many returnee children schoolbooks and supplies, assisted returnee communities to build wells, and funded income-generation projects for returnee women. These programs lacked sufficient international financial support, however.

In February, UNHCR and the government of Iran agreed that UNHCR would facilitate the repatriation of tens of thousands of undocumented Afghans and former refugees from Iran. In return, Iran agreed to permit Afghans who claimed to be refugees to apply for asylum and, if determined to be refugees, remain legally in Iran. UNHCR reportedly agreed to participate in the program to deter Iran from forcibly deporting Afghan refugees. Iran had deported some 100,000 Afghans in 1999.

In the weeks before the repatriation program was to start, the Iranian authorities arrested hundreds of Afghans (perhaps more) living and working in Tehran and allegedly deported many of them. Both UNHCR and the Afghan opposition criticized the deportations and urged the Iranian authorities to cease them. Some observers believed that Iran, a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, carried out the deportations to "encourage" other Afghans to participate in the UNHCR-assisted "voluntary" repatriation program.

Between April and December, nearly 133,600 Afghans repatriated from Iran under the UNHCR program. UNHCR and WFP provided returnees an aid package consisting of a cash grant of $40, a set quantity of wheat per person, and non-food items such as agricultural tools. The International Organization for Migration provided the returnees transportation to their home areas in Afghanistan. Approximately half were from Herat Province.

UNHCR had limited funds to implement the repatriation program and consequently provided little assistance to returnees in their home areas. In some areas with large numbers of returnees, UNHCR provided shelter material and assisted communities to repair irrigation systems. Only a small minority of the returnees benefited from these programs, however. The International Rescue Committee, a U.S. NGO, implemented various U.S.-government-funded reintegration projects in areas with large numbers of returnees. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) also implemented programs for returnees. However, most returnees had to fend for themselves.

During the course of the year, another 50,000 Afghans repatriated independently of the program. It was not clear how many of the 50,000 repatriated voluntarily, or how many the Iranian authorities may have forcibly returned.

Some observers were critical of UNHCR's participation in the repatriation program. They questioned whether it was appropriate for UNHCR to facilitate a repatriation when ongoing conflict and drought in Afghanistan made it unlikely that returnees would be safe or able to reintegrate economically. In September, Amnesty International said that returnees might be at risk of human rights abuses. It added that many returnees had told relief workers that they returned because the Iranian authorities had pressured them to do so. "This puts into question whether the repatriation process is voluntary," Amnesty said.

An estimated 49,000 Afghan families (about 270,000 individuals) who had been living in Iran without documentation applied for refugee status in 2000. Joint Iranian-UNHCR teams granted refugee status to or were still considering the applications of some 19,600 families (about 108,000 individuals). They rejected the applications of some 29,400 families (about 162,000 individuals). More than 1.4 million Afghan refugees remained in Iran at year's end.

Other Afghan Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Some 13,000 Afghan refugees were in India, 25,000 were in the central Asian republics north of Afghanistan, and 13,000 were in other countries. According to UNHCR, 28,790 Afghans filed asylum applications in Europe during 2000, primarily in Germany (5,399), the United Kingdom (5,220), the Netherlands (5,055), and Austria (4,205). Afghanistan was the source of the third largest number of asylum applicants in Europe in 2000.

In February, a group of Afghans hijacked an Ariana Airlines flight and forced the crew to land the airplane at an airport near London. The United Kingdom quickly returned most of the passengers, even though some had indicated a fear of returning to Afghanistan. The United Kingdom also rejected the applications of most of the passengers and hijackers who did apply for asylum.

Internally Displaced Persons

The number of internally displaced Afghans is unknown. In recent years, Taliban offensives in northern Afghanistan have displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Many are thought to have returned home as the lines of battle shifted from their home areas to new ones. A 1999 survey of Kabul's population carried out by the ICRC found that 83 percent of those interviewed had been displaced from their homes at one time or another.

During 2000, some 250,000 people were newly displaced, but many of them were able to return home during the year. Tens of thousands of civilians fled in advance of the Taliban's August/September offensive. Virtually the entire population of Taloqan evacuated the city, in most cases temporarily, before it fell to the Taliban. According to the Office of the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Afghanistan, in late 2000, almost 100,000 people remained displaced in Takhar and Badakhshan provinces as a result of conflict. Some 100,000 persons were displaced in Mazar-e-Sharif and nearby areas. Another 46,000 were displaced in Kunduz and Baghlan provinces. These newly displaced joined some 125,000 other previously displaced persons living in Kabul and the Panjshir Valley. At year's end, there were, at a minimum, some 375,000 displaced persons in Afghanistan.

Among those displaced in Takhar Province were some 10,000 persons who fled the fighting in August and September only to become stranded on several islands in a river along the Afghan-Tajik border. They suffered periodic attacks by the Taliban and received little assistance because their location was accessible only through Tajikistan. UNHCR repeatedly appealed to the Tajik government to permit the refugees to enter. Tajikistan had not granted them entry by year's end.

The worst drought to hit Afghanistan in 30 years also contributed to forced migration. More than 70,000 were displaced in southern Afghanistan; another 70,000 were displaced in and near Herat, western Afghanistan's largest city. Drought-affected persons began arriving in Herat from Badgis, Faryab, and Ghor provinces in June. Most were rural people who had been driven from their homes by the effects of drought. By year's end, there were some 70,000 environmental migrants in six camps in and near Herat. In addition, an average of 50 families continued to arrive there daily. Because this population was forced to migrate primarily because of the drought rather than conflict or persecution, USCR did not include them in its count of internally displaced persons.

The relief effort in Herat was inadequate. Leadership and coordination were lacking in the early months of the influx, and many of the organizations attempting to assist the displaced struggled because they lacked funds. Beginning in December, coordination improved, as did conditions in some camps. However, at Maslagh, the largest camp, they remained inadequate, largely because of a lack of funds. At year's end, WFP warned that it had only enough food to feed the displaced in Herat through February 2001, and appealed for additional urgent donations.

The Taliban authorities did little to meet displaced Afghans' humanitarian needs. Although members of the Taliban's Ministry of Martyrs and Refugees were active in the coordination of relief activities in most localities and sometimes helped provide security, they rarely contributed resources to the relief effort. The Taliban appeared to devote all of its available resources to its war effort while leaving humanitarian relief for its population affected by war and drought to the international community.

Copyright 2001, USCR