REFUGEES AND REPATRIATION
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Data as of 1997