Remembering Afghan Refugees

Published on September 11, 2008 in Eurasianet

As Americans reflect on the tragic events of seven years ago, they should also recall that the September 11 terrorist attacks caused the international spotlight to refocus on Afghanistan. The US-led invasion in late 2001 succeeded in driving the Taliban from power, and paved the way for a humanitarian success story. Of late, however, the international commitment to Afghanistan seems to have lost traction. One way that Americans can honor the September 11 victims is by keeping Afghan reconstruction efforts on course, and doing their part to ensure that millions of Afghan refugees feel secure enough to return home.

Over the course of the past three decades, Afghan refugees have never hesitated to return home as soon as promising conditions have given them hope for restoration of peace and justice in their homeland. In 1992 and 1993, for example, following the fall of the Afghan communist regime, more than 2 million Afghan refugees voluntarily repatriated from Pakistan and Iran. But their return ground to a halt, shortly after the breakout of the civil war that plunged Afghanistan into anarchy and chaos.

Buoyed by international re-engagement in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, more than 5 million Afghan refugees returned home from Pakistan and Iran during the early 2000s, making the largest voluntary repatriation in the history of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

But there still are over 3 million Afghan in Pakistan, and over 1 million in Iran, and these remaining refugees are now reluctant to return home. Deteriorating security, widespread poverty and unemployment, and a severe lack of social facilities such as access to education and healthcare constitute major obstacles to voluntary repatriation of most Afghan refugees. In many areas, especially in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban has once again emerged as a force to be reckoned with.

When a UN reporter in June asked one Afghan refugee, Hazrat Shah, if he planned to repatriate, the carpet weaver now living in Pakistan replied; “There is no place in the world like home. But where would you go if your house were ablaze?” He added gloomily, “Today two new graves have been dug for two brothers who were killed in a landmine explosion in Afghanistan.” The two youngsters–not related to Hazrat Shah–had returned home to Gereshk in Helmand province the week before to find jobs and gradually to pave the way for the repatriation of their entire family from Pakistan.

The government and people of Afghanistan appreciate the humanitarian assistance Pakistan and Iran have provided to Afghan refugees over the past three decades. But pull factors such as improved security, enhanced protection and reintegration assistance, and increased employment opportunities in Afghanistan should determine push factors in host states.

Pakistan and Iran must honor the principle of non-refoulement, rooted both in international and Islamic law, to refrain from forcible deportation of Afghan refugees. The Afghan government maintains separate trilateral agreements with Pakistan, Iran, and UNHCR–a key provision of which is to facilitate voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees from the two countries only if the conditions inside Afghanistan allow. Although host states have an interest in encouraging refugees to go back home, UNHCR is mandated to prevent and protect refugees from repatriating prematurely if the prevailing conditions at home are not ready for their return. Except for spontaneous returns during 2002-2003, Afghan refugees must have been warned about increasing instability and a severe lack of reintegration assistance in Afghanistan in the following years.

Contrarily, however, Afghan refugees have been encouraged to return home, as repatriation–voluntary or otherwise–has been viewed as a positive sign of stabilization and reconstruction progress in Afghanistan. Consequently, the fact that most returnees have ended up becoming internally displaced due to conflicts and an expanding drought should be cause for serious concern to UNHCR and the international community. It should also be a signal to halt further premature repatriation of Afghan refugees until the conditions in Afghanistan have improved enough for their safe return home.

At the same time, the international community must honor the principle of burden sharing and provide relief assistance to states hosting large numbers of refugees. Assistance to Pakistan and Iran should aim at empowering Afghan refugees so that they will gain skills necessary both to contribute to their host societies and later to use those skills to earn an income upon return home.

Additionally, developed countries must expand their resettlement programs, taking in more Afghan refugees from Iran and Pakistan on an annual basis. Resettlement of Afghan refugees in the developed countries will go a long way in helping rebuild and develop Afghanistan. Resilience and high achievement motivation that characterize most refugees will quickly enable resettled Afghan families to adapt into their new societies, taking advantage of social and economic opportunities there to establish themselves and to continue supporting their relatives at home, as well as in Pakistan and Iran.

In the long run, most resettled Afghans will have gained wealth and higher education which they would certainly use to invest in Afghanistan, as we know from the return of many wealthy Afghans and technocrats who have made significant contributions to Afghanistan’s reconstruction since 2002.

In pondering resettlement programs, one myth must be confronted head-on: Contrary to frequent allegations that Afghan refugees are a burden on their host countries’ economies, the opposite is most often true. The millions of refugees in Pakistan and Iran are assets to those countries’ economies. Many Afghans in both states fill a glaring need in the labor sector, working casual jobs at wages much lower than that paid to locals who may not even be willing to accept such jobs because of social taboos associated with casual labor. Other Afghan refugees use their special skills–such as carpet weaving–to produce quality Afghan rugs, which local firms purchase below market price, brand them made in the host country, and then sell them in developed countries with manifold profit. Most importantly, a significant number of Afghan refugees have found success as entrepreneurs and have risen to operate midsize and even corporate-level businesses in Pakistan, Iran, and the Gulf states, making notable contributions to those countries’ economic growth.

Other allegations that terrorists recruit from Afghan refugee camps are utterly baseless and a political excuse on Pakistan’s part not to cooperate sincerely in the war against terrorism. Afghan refugees are actually victims of violence and terrorism, but abusing their status as a scapegoat is clearly a violation of their rights under the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Countries that are party to the Geneva Convention and other international human rights regimes are obligated to respect refugee rights as human rights and safeguard them by providing refugees with protection from violence, persecution, and human insecurity that collectively make it impossible for most refugees to return home voluntarily.

Almost 2,500 years ago, Euripides wrote that “there is no greater sorrow on earth than the loss of one’s native land.” Indeed, for most Afghan refugees, like Hazrat Shah, no foreign land can ever replace their homeland where they will return as soon as they feel secure to do so. It is obvious that the real durable solution to the Afghan refugees’ problem is voluntary repatriation, which can only be guaranteed by security in Afghanistan. Hence, Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan’s other neighbors can and must cooperate with the international community to stabilize Afghanistan first.

Durable stability and prosperity in the country would automatically attract Afghan refugees to voluntarily return home. At the same time, the international community must honor the commitments they recently made at the Paris Support Conference to provide the Afghan government with long-term resources to implement the objectives of the Afghanistan National Development Strategy–a key priority of which is to help reintegrate returning refugees and internally displaced persons into their communities.

A former refugee, internally displaced person, and UNHCR field officer, M. Ashraf Haidari is the political counselor of the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, DC. His e-mail is