Seven years after the fall of the Taliban, Afghans still constitute the biggest group of refugees cared for by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. As the UNHCR mentions in its annual report, it provides protection or help to three million Afghans, who are mostly in neighbouring Pakistan or Iran.
Afghan refugees returning home from Pakistan
“I am Tasveera and I am from Afghanistan and have been living in Pakistan since 1984.”
Tasveera was almost a year old when she left Afghanistan with her family and came to Pakistan. Now 25, she lives with her mother in Islamabad, where she is learning English.
She doesn’t have many memories of her country or her hometown Perwan. All she knows is they were forced to leave the country by the dire conditions: “The situation was not good and we had a lot of problems there. We had to leave our country and go to a safe place for our security. And so we came here in Pakistan.”
Tasveera is one of almost two million Afghan refugees currently living in Pakistan. Some of them have been settled in cities and towns, while some still live in camps.
Several mass refugee movements
There was a mass exodus from Afghanistan in the 1980s under the Soviet occupation. In recent years, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced as a result of fighting between US-led foreign troops and Taliban militants.
Repatriation programmes resumed after the fall of the Taliban regime but many refugees say they do not want to return.
Vivian Tan from the UNHCR Islamabad explained why: “The Afghans that we have spoken to usually cite a number of reasons for not wanting to go back. This can range from lack of security in parts of Afghanistan to general lack of jobs, education, and other basic facilities such as clinics.”
Returnees need land
Despite this general reluctance, over five million Afghans have returned to their country from Iran, Pakistan and other countries since 2002. But for most of them, starting a new life in the country that they left years ago has not been easy. Their most immediate need is land, said Rachel Mackintosh from the Danish committee for aid to afghan refugees in Kabul.
“Afghanistan is mainly an agricultural society so it is essential that people should have access to land in order to generate income. The land that the refugees have access to is limited.”
For Afghanistan, which is still struggling to stabilise, it is not easy to absorb the returning refugees but the government recently announced that they would be integrated into the national development plan that was presented in Paris. Vivian Tan from UNHCR hailed the announcement as “a positive step.”
The government is now bracing itself for even more returnees, as Iran insists on forcibly repatriating Afghan refugees and the Pakistani government makes plans to shut down refugee camps and repatriate all the refugees by next year.