Afghanistan Table of Contents

Eighteen years after the 1978 coup by the PDPA, the refugee problem remained a significant issue for Afghanistan and its neighbors. The refugee flow began as a trickle in April 1978, reaching a peak during the first half of 1981 when an estimated 4,700 crossed the Pakistan border daily. The flow ebbed and surged in response to Soviet offenses, so that by the fall of 1989, the number of Afghan refugees was estimated at 3.2 million in Pakistan, 2.2. million in Iran, and several hundred thousands resettled in scattered communities throughout the world. Afghans represented the largest single concentration of refugees in the world on whom an estimated $1 million a day was expended in 1988.

Following the fall of the PDPA regime in 1992, a new wave of refugees entered Pakistan; the takeover of Kabul by the Taliban in 1996 set in motion a lesser flow which continued in 1997 although refugee assistance, other than to those most vulnerable, was cut back drastically in October 1995. Only emergency assistance is available in hastily reconstituted camps for new arrivals around Peshawar.

Unlike earlier flows of refugees who fled from the consequences of war, recent arrivals are largely educated urban families fleeing because the economy has broken down and, most significantly, because education for girls is unavailable and that provided for boys is so poor. Arriving in Pakistan with high hopes, the new refugees find the situation as bad, if not worse than it is in Afghanistan. There are no jobs, housing and services are expensive as is admission to Pakistani schools, and the schools run by many Afghans are mostly shams. Immigration to third countries is all but closed. Most families, therefore, must depend exclusively on relatives which is psychologically destructive.

Less publicized, but equally disruptive, was the displacement of internal populations, from war affected rural areas to cities, and from bombed out cities to rural areas. IDPs or Internally Displaced Persons are estimated at about one million. UNHCR, ICRC and NGO-assisted camps were established in and around Jalalabad in the east, at Pul-i-Khumri, Mazar-i- Sharif and Kunduz in the north, and in Herat in the west. Other IDPs survived on the goodwill and support systems of local rural communities. This stretched the resources of towns and rural areas throughout the country, especially south and north of Kabul and in the Hazarajat. These movements could bring about changes in demographic balances with untold consequences.

To stem the flow of refugees, NGOs based in Pakistan led by the example of the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan in 1982, provided essential services in health, education and agriculture inside Afghanistan. These were known as cross-border programs. At the same time, UN agencies, delivered cross-line assistance into mujahideen-held from their offices in Kabul.

In July 1990 UNHCR started an assisted repatriation program in Pakistan, later extended to Iran. By the end of 1996 total repatriation reached 3.84 million. Many returnees were assisted by Quick Impact Projects. Designed to encourage repatriation and facilitate refugees when they returned, the QIP provided assistance for a limited period to support improvements in shelter, health and sanitation, and education, repaired roads and irrigation systems, and offered skills training related to income generation. Many Afghan NGOs also seek to support the sustainable return of refugees and IDPs by strengthening livelihood security, improving economic opportunities, providing basic social safety nets and restoring the environment.

Following Taliban takeovers of Jalalabad and Kabul in September 1996, the flow of returnees decreased dramatically - on some days none crossed the border - while the number of families crossing into Pakistan once again rose, despite the fact that they were officially discouraged from entering and that only minimum emergency assistance was available.

The background and origins of the refugees has changed over the years. The first to come in 1978 were members of the extended Afghan royal family, their associates, and political allies. Almost all resettled in third countries. By the mid-1980s, most refugees in Pakistan were rural, nonliterate pastoralists and farmers. The refugees who fled from Kabul in the 1990s included educated urban bureaucrats, uneducated laborers and high profile officials. Most of the latter were immediately given asylum in third countries. By 1996 the majority of arrivals were highly urbanized, skilled professionals and technocrats. In Pakistan they sit idle, representing a tragic waste of scarce human resources at the very moment in the nation's history when their skills are so desperately needed for reconstruction.

In the early years most refugees, with the exception of those from urban areas who chose to live in cities, lived in tented villages in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), in Baluchistan Province, and in southwest Punjab. Over the years many of these villages became permanent settlements, with mud-brick dwellings and walled compounds replicating the rural villages inside Afghanistan. Pakistan government policies concerning refugees has all along been most liberal. No barbed-wire fences confine camps, and refugees are free to move anywhere to seek employment. Additionally, management of supplies and services provided by the Pakistan government, UNHCR and numbers of NGOs was exemplary. Remarkably, there were no epidemics, little malnutrition because of delayed or insufficient food, and no major outbreaks of violence between refugee and local populations.

Social life for most refugees in Pakistan retained many elements of life in Afghanistan, although settlement patterns in an alien environment with indiscriminate mixings of family, geographic, ethnic, sectarian and social groups strengthened inherent social and religious conservatism. Family bonds were strengthened, but the outward semblance of solidity masked an existence that was tenuous and subject to severe tensions, many of which marginalized traditional female roles and curtailed their freedom. Aggressive campaigns by mujahideen parties whose representatives largely controlled the refugee camps kept women from seeking employment and training opportunities. Many of these problems gradually disappeared in 1992 once the mujahideen took over the reins of government in Kabul.

On the other hand, although still physically restricted, women have widened their horizons and heightened their expectations, especially with regard to better health and education. Many women are thus reluctant to repatriate, citing an unwillingness once again to undergo the traumas of displacement, the inability of the authorities to provide even minimal services to which they have become accustomed, and the absence of guaranteed economic security. A million or more refugees remain in Pakistan, therefore, and the prospects for total repatriation are less than bright.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress