Refugees and Repatriation

Refugees and Repatriation

Eighteen years after the 1978 coup by the PDPA, the refugee problem remaineda significant issue for Afghanistan and its neighbors. The refugee flow began asa trickle in April 1978, reaching a peak during the first half of 1981 when anestimated 4,700 crossed the Pakistan border daily. The flow ebbed and surged inresponse to Soviet offenses, so that by the fall of 1989, the number of Afghanrefugees was estimated at 3.2 million in Pakistan, 2.2. million in Iran, andseveral hundred thousands resettled in scattered communities throughout theworld. Afghans represented the largest single concentration of refugees in theworld 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 enteredPakistan; the takeover of Kabul by the Taliban in 1996 set in motion a lesserflow which continued in 1997 although refugee assistance, other than to thosemost vulnerable, was cut back drastically in October 1995. Only emergencyassistance is available in hastily reconstituted camps for new arrivals aroundPeshawar.

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

Less publicized, but equally disruptive, was the displacement of internalpopulations, from war affected rural areas to cities, and from bombed out citiesto rural areas. IDPs or Internally Displaced Persons are estimated at about onemillion. UNHCR, ICRC and NGO-assisted camps were established in and aroundJalalabad 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 supportsystems of local rural communities. This stretched the resources of towns andrural areas throughout the country, especially south and north of Kabul and inthe Hazarajat. These movements could bring about changes in demographic balanceswith untold consequences.

To stem the flow of refugees, NGOs based in Pakistan led by the example ofthe Swedish Committee for Afghanistan in 1982, provided essential services inhealth, education and agriculture inside Afghanistan. These were known ascross-border programs. At the same time, UN agencies, delivered cross-lineassistance 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 3.84million. Many returnees were assisted by Quick Impact Projects. Designed toencourage repatriation and facilitate refugees when they returned, the QIPprovided assistance for a limited period to support improvements in shelter,health and sanitation, and education, repaired roads and irrigation systems, andoffered skills training related to income generation. Many Afghan NGOs also seekto support the sustainable return of refugees and IDPs by strengtheninglivelihood security, improving economic opportunities, providing basic socialsafety nets and restoring the environment.

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

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

In the early years most refugees, with the exception of those from urbanareas who chose to live in cities, lived in tented villages in the North WestFrontier Province (NWFP), in Baluchistan Province, and in southwest Punjab. Overthe years many of these villages became permanent settlements, with mud-brickdwellings and walled compounds replicating the rural villages insideAfghanistan. Pakistan government policies concerning refugees has all along beenmost liberal. No barbed-wire fences confine camps, and refugees are free to moveanywhere to seek employment. Additionally, management of supplies and servicesprovided by the Pakistan government, UNHCR and numbers of NGOs was exemplary.Remarkably, there were no epidemics, little malnutrition because of delayed orinsufficient food, and no major outbreaks of violence between refugee and localpopulations.

Social life for most refugees in Pakistan retained many elements of life inAfghanistan, although settlement patterns in an alien environment withindiscriminate mixings of family, geographic, ethnic, sectarian and socialgroups strengthened inherent social and religious conservatism. Family bondswere strengthened, but the outward semblance of solidity masked an existencethat was tenuous and subject to severe tensions, many of which marginalizedtraditional female roles and curtailed their freedom. Aggressive campaigns bymujahideen parties whose representatives largely controlled the refugee campskept women from seeking employment and training opportunities. Many of theseproblems gradually disappeared in 1992 once the mujahideen took over the reinsof government in Kabul.

On the other hand, although still physically restricted, women have widenedtheir horizons and heightened their expectations, especially with regard tobetter health and education. Many women are thus reluctant to repatriate, citingan unwillingness once again to undergo the traumas of displacement, theinability of the authorities to provide even minimal services to which they havebecome accustomed, and the absence of guaranteed economic security. A million ormore refugees remain in Pakistan, therefore, and the prospects for totalrepatriation are less than bright.

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