Afghanistan’s refugees: forty years of dispossession

Forty years ago, Afghans began fleeing the violence in their country and seeking refuge across nearby borders. More than 400,000 people fled the violence of the Communist-led Taraki and Amin government, crossing over into Pakistan. The numbers progressively swelled after the Soviet invasion on Christmas Eve in 1979. By the end of 1980, there were more than four million Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Over the next four years, that number grew further still, with more than five million refugees in Pakistan and Iran.

Afghan refugees represent one of the world’s largest protracted refugee population. Over the past four decades, many have been forced from their homes to never see them again. Some were able to return, for a while, but had their lives upendedby a fresh eruption of conflict and violence – either to be displaced elsewhere in the country, or to become refugees yet again. There are refugee camps where successive Afghan generations have lived, long forming part of the local fabric of society, and yet they have been denied their rights, demonized and constantly threatened with deportation.

There are also those who have made successful journeys to faraway lands, like the United States of America and Europe, finally finding the peace and dignity that had long eluded them. And there are others, who were less fortunate, who were forcibly returned to a country that is now more dangerous than when they left it, or detained in inhumane conditions –where they still languish.

There are currently more than 2.6 million registered refugees in the world from Afghanistan – more than one in ten of all refugees, and the second highest number after Syria. There are many more who haven’t been registered or who are currently asylum-seekers. And there are more than two million people who have been internally displaced by the ongoing conflict.

Afghan refugees represent one of the world’s largest protracted refugee population. Over the past four decades, many have been forced from their homes to never see them again. Some were able to return, for a while, but had their lives upended by a fresh eruption of conflict and violence – either to be displaced elsewhere in the country, or to become refugees yet again

In 2018, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan documentedthe highest ever recorded civilian deaths, including the highest ever recorded number of children killed in the conflict. There were nearly 11,000 casualties which included 3,804 deaths and 7,189 injuries. Last year also saw more than 360,000 internally displaced by the conflict, according the United Nations Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

In a report published in June 2019, the Institute for Peace and Economics said that Afghanistan isthe world’s “least peaceful” country, replacing Syria.

Despite this dangerous situation, the international community continues to show a callous indifference towards Afghan refugees and asylum-seekers – who have been forcibly returned in large numbers from Europe, Iran, and Pakistan, or subject to cruel conditions in Australia’s offshore detention camps on Manus Island andNauru.

The forced returns from Europe, Pakistan and Iran add to instability in Afghanistan, according to Chaloka Beyani, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons. “These people cannot be absorbed into Afghan economic and social life. The government clearly says, ‘Look, we don’t have the capacity’”,Chaloka Beyani warned in 2016.


Just days before International Refugee Day 2019, Taibeh Abbasi, a student who lives in Trondheim, Norway  and her two siblings weredeported to Afghanistan – a country she has never known. Taibeh’s family fled Afghanistan at the time of the Soviet invasion, and first settled in Iran, where Taibeh was born and the family suffered discrimination.

Eventually, they made a journey to Norway, where Taibeh grew up, was educated, made friends and dreamed of becoming a doctor. That dream was interrupted two years ago, when Taibeh’s family received a letter from the Norwegian authorities, informing that they may be deported.

The move came as a shock to Taibeh’s friends, who mounted a campaign called #AbbasiStays. “Taibeh has never been to Afghanistan, and it’s not a safe country. Through demonstrations and concerts, we made our voices heard. People from all over Trondheim came together to support our campaign,”wrote Ingjerd Jepsen Vegge, Taibeh’s best friend.

“This is a principled fight. We are shedding light on Norway’s dysfunctional policies. We have supported Taibeh and her family throughout this ordeal, but there are so many other stories just like Taibeh’s that stay secret. The government’s actions are sad, frustrating and disappointing.”

Upon her arrival in Afghanistan, the authorities there said they would not accept Taibeh and her family. At the time of writing, she is on her way back to Norway, raising hopes that she will be allowed to continue her life there.

In recent years, along with Norway, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Germany, Austria, Finland and Turkey have forcibly returned tens of thousands of Afghans whose asylum claims have been rejected.The returns are a clear breach of the principle of non-refoulement: the right not to be sent back to a country where one might be at risk of serious human rights violations and abuses.

According to official EU statistics, between 2015 and 2016, the number of Afghans returned by European countries to Afghanistan nearly tripled: from 3,290 to 9,460. The returns correspond to marked fall in recognition of asylum applications, from 68% in September 2015 to 33% in December 2016.

The people forcibly returned included unaccompanied children, young adults who were children when they arrived in Europe, people who have never lived in Afghanistan before. The people returned have included those who have been injured, committed suicide, killed in bomb attacks, or left to live in constant fear.

Far from being ignorant of the dangerous situation in Afghanistan, European governments recognized it when the European Union (EU) signed the “Joint Way Forward,” an agreement to return Afghan asylum-seekers.

In a leaked document, EU agencies acknowledged Afghanistan’s “worsening security situation and threats to which people are exposed,” as well as the “record levels of terrorist attacks and civilian casualties”. However, they callously insisted that “more than 80,000 persons could potentially need to be returned in the near future.”

There is credible evidence that this “need” was expressed in the form of pressure on the Afghan government. Ekil Hakimi, Afghanistan’s Finance Minister, told parliament: “If Afghanistan does not cooperate with EU countries on the refugee crisis, this will negatively impact the amount of aid allocated to Afghanistan.”

Turkey has been responsible for some of the largest number of forced returns, with tens of thousands of Afghans detained and sent back over the past two years, in terrible conditions with no support once they return.


Pakistan currently hosts more than 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees and another one million unregistered Afghans. They began arriving in 1979, in the months leading up to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. At the height, there were more than four million Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Over recent years, those numbers have dramatically fallen as the Pakistani government has coerced Afghans into returning, often leveraging their presence as a political tool in disputes with the Afghanistan government.

While they have been in Pakistan, Afghan refugees have been allowed to move freely, but have had few other rights. Pakistan is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention. As a result, Afghan refugees have not been able to access formal education opportunities, to open a bank account, to work, buy property and have even been denied access to healthcare.

After the December 2014 massacre of more than 100 schoolchildren in Peshawar, the Pakistani authorities began cracking down on refugee camps. Long subject to routine harassment, including the solicitation of bribes, the refugees were made a focus for reprisals after the armed group that attacked the school was traced to Afghanistan.

In 2016 alone, up to 365,000 refugees were forcibly returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan, in whatHuman Rights Watch described as “the world’s largest unlawful mass forced return of refugees in recent times”. One of the people deported that year was Sharbat Gula, the iconic “Afghan girl” who was featured on the cover of National Geographic magazine in June 1985. For decades, Sharbat Gula’s blazing green eyes served as a reminder of the plight of Afghan refugees and Pakistan’s status as a host of then the world’s largest refugee population.

Several times, Pakistan has imposed arbitrarily and unfeasible deadlines. Each time, an extension has been granted reluctantly. Last year, Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that Afghan refugees would finally be granted citizenship, ending their decades in legal limbo. For those born in Pakistan, the Nationality Act entitles them to citizenship – but they have never been granted this right on the spurious grounds that their parents were refugees. But the move was swiftly reversed, and the current “Proof of Registration” cards have been extended to June 2020.

An Afghan refugee boy in Pakistan (AFP/Getty)
An Afghan refugee boy in Pakistan (AFP/Getty)


Iran has been home to the second largest population of Afghan refugees, after Pakistan. In recent years, it has been the source of the highest number of returns to Afghanistan. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates, there are 1.5 to two million “undocumented” Afghan refugees in Iran – many of whom have been in Iran for the past forty years. Last year saw 770,000 of them returned to Afghanistan, according to the International Organization for Migration(IOM). In 2017, the number of people returned to Afghanistan from Iran was 462,000.

The principal reason for this staggering rise, according to the IOM, was “driven by recent political and economic issues in Iran”. Most Afghans are employed in informal sectors of the Iranian economy. The effect of USA sanctions on Iran is having a serious effect on Afghans trying to make a living there. IOM expects that there will be more than 570,000 returnees from Iran in 2019, a situation which will exacerbate Afghanistan’s own economic and humanitarian situation.

Remittances from Afghanistan account for as much as six per cent of Afghanistan’s total GDP.

In 2016,a joint UNHCR and World Bank report on the consequences for returnees warned: “Additional returns from Pakistan, Iran, or Europe are likely to result in further secondary displacement, unemployment and instability.”

Afghan families protest outside the offices of UNHCR in Turkey (Photo by Piero Castellano/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Afghan families protest outside the offices of UNHCR in Turkey (Photo by Piero Castellano/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)