Today, some 2.6 million Afghan refugees are living in more than 70 countries around the world. The saga of Afghan refugees began in late December 1979: Afghans were an impoverished people but content with their agrarian and traditional way of life. They hardly ever sought to migrate abroad for economic opportunities. But normality abruptly ceased in the days following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, as the country became a major victim of the Cold War. Soviet tanks rolled into Afghan villages, indiscriminately killing innocent civilians, destroying their livelihoods, and driving most Afghans abroad in search of protection and human security. More Afghans fled violence, persecution and ethnic cleansing and genocide as a result of regional proxy conflicts in Afghanistan throughout the 1990s. Many sought refuge in neighboring Pakistan and Iran, both of which host around 95 percent of all Afghan refugees today.
However, over the course of the past 36 years, Afghan refugees have never hesitated to return home as soon as conditions have given them hope for the restoration of peace and justice in Afghanistan. In 1992 and 1993, for example, following the fall of the Afghan communist regime, more than 2 million Afghan refugees voluntarily repatriated from Pakistan and Iran. But this return exodus ground to a halt shortly after the start of the civil war that plunged Afghanistan into anarchy and chaos for a decade.
Buoyed by international re-engagement in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, more than 5.8 million Afghan refugees have returned home from Pakistan and Iran, making this the largest voluntary repatriation in the history of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Despite Afghan refugees’ record repatriation and the many hardships they face on return, Iranian and Pakistani officials have occasionally politicized what is actually a humanitarian issue –labeling Afghan refugees as a “burden on our economy” or potential “recruits for terrorism.” Unfortunately, these political stereotypes not only mischaracterize Afghan refugees but also disregard the many contributions that refugees actually make to their host societies and the world at large.
After all, refugees and asylum seekers are ordinary civilians with dignity and human rights but whose normal lives have suddenly changed for the worse due to circumstances that have forced them to abandon their home for safety elsewhere. German physicist Albert Einstein and French writer Victor Hugo, for instance, were great intellectuals of their time, but were suddenly refugees in a strange land after escaping persecution in their home countries. While in exile, they gave back much in knowledge to their host societies and continued making astonishing contributions to science and literature, respectively.
The millions of Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran are assets to those countries’ economies. Many Afghans in both states fill a glaring need in the labor sector, working casual jobs at wages much lower than that paid to locals who may not even be willing to accept such jobs because of social taboos associated with casual labor. Other Afghan refugees use their special skills. For instance, carpet weavers produce quality Afghan rugs, which local firms purchase below market price, brand them made in the host country, and then sell in developed countries for a large profit.
Still another significant segment of the Afghan refugee population, particularly in Pakistan, receives monthly remittances of US$800 to $1,000 from their relatives in developed countries (mostly Europe, North America, Australia, and the Gulf states), which they spend on housing and services in the local economies. Moreover, a great number of well-off Afghan refugees run businesses in Pakistan, Iran, and the Gulf states, making notable contributions to those countries’ economic growth. Since 2001, a large number of exiled Afghan businessmen have returned home and invested in key sectors such as telecommunications, construction, transportation, and logistics, which in turn have facilitated increased trade and commerce through and between Afghanistan and its neighbors, particularly Pakistan and Iran.
Other allegations that terrorists recruit from Afghan refugee camps are utterly baseless and a political excuse to avoid cooperating sincerely in the “war against terror.” Afghan refugees are actually victims of violence and terrorism, and abusing their status is clearly a violation of their rights under the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. Countries party to the Geneva Convention and other international human rights pacts are obligated to respect refugee rights as human rights and safeguard them by providing refugees with protection from the violence, persecution, and insecurity that collectively make it impossible for most refugees to return home.
Although 5.8 million Afghan refugees have repatriated from Pakistan, Iran, and other countries over the past 14 years, most of the remaining refugees are reluctant to return home. When a UN reporter once asked one Afghan refugee, Hazrat Shah, if he planned to repatriate, the carpet weaver living in Pakistan replied: “There is no place in the world like home. But where would you go if your house were ablaze?” He added, “Today two new graves have been dug for two brothers who were killed in a landmine explosion in Afghanistan.” The two youngsters – not related to Hazrat Shah – had returned home to Gereshk in southern Helmand province to find jobs and gradually to pave the way for the repatriation of their entire family from Pakistan.
The government and people of Afghanistan appreciate the humanitarian assistance Pakistan, Iran, and other host countries have provided to Afghan refugees and asylum seekers over the past three decades. But “pull” factors such as improved security, enhanced protection and reintegration assistance, and increased employment opportunities in Afghanistan should determine “push” factors in host states.
All countries hosting large numbers of Afghan refugees and asylum seekers (Pakistan, Iran, Australia, Greece, the U.K., Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, France, and Switzerland) must honor the principle of non-refoulement rooted in international and Islamic law to refrain from the forcible deportation of Afghan refugees and asylum seekers. The Afghan government maintains trilateral agreements with most of these countries and the UNHCR – a key provision of which is to facilitate the voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees from the two countries only if the conditions inside Afghanistan allow.
Although host states have an interest in encouraging refugees to go back home, the UNHCR is mandated to prevent and protect refugees and asylum seekers from repatriating prematurely, if the prevailing conditions at home are not ready for their return. Except for spontaneous returns during the period from 2002 to 2005, Afghan refugees must have been warned about increasing instability and a severe lack of reintegration assistance in Afghanistan in the following years.
The fall of the Taliban in 2001 – coupled with promises of a long-term strategy modeled after the Marshall Plan to secure the future of Afghanistan – left millions of refugees overly optimistic. Of course, a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan has yet to materialize. Nonetheless, the talk of it did re-displace hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees who had a good life that took them more than two decades to establish in exile.
The fact that thousands of returnees have ended up internally displaced and without assistance should be cause for serious concern to the UNHCR and the international community and should halt further premature repatriation of Afghan refugees and deportation of asylum seekers until conditions in Afghanistan have improved. At the same time, the international community must honor the principle of burden sharing and provide relief assistance to states with large numbers of refugees. Assistance to Pakistan and Iran should aim at empowering Afghan refugees so that they can gain the skills needed both to contribute to their host societies and later to use to earn an income on their return home.
Additionally, developed countries must expand their resettlement programs, taking in more Afghan refugees from Iran, Pakistan, and India on an annual basis. Granting asylum to and resettling Afghans in developed countries will go a long way in helping rebuild and develop Afghanistan. The resilience and ambition that characterize most refugees and asylum seekers will quickly enable resettled Afghan families to adapt into their new societies, taking advantage of social and economic opportunities there to establish themselves and to continue supporting their relatives at home, as well as in Iran, Pakistan, and India.
In the long run, most resettled Afghans will have gained wealth and education which they will certainly use to invest in Afghanistan. Proof of this is evident in the return of many wealthy Afghans and technocrats – including President Ashraf Ghani and many others – who have made significant contributions to Afghanistan’s reconstruction since 2002.
Almost 2,500 years ago, Euripides wrote, “There is no greater sorrow on Earth than the loss of one’s native land.” Indeed, for most Afghan refugees, like Hazrat Shah, no foreign land can ever replace their homeland and they will return as soon as they feel safe in doing so. It is obvious that the only truly durable solution to the Afghan refugee problem is voluntary repatriation, and that in turn can only be guaranteed by security in Afghanistan. Hence, Pakistan, Iran and Western nations with high concentrations of Afghan asylum seekers can and must cooperate to stabilize Afghanistan first. Durable stability and prosperity in the country will automatically encourage Afghan refugees to voluntarily return home – negating the need for pressure or forcible repatriation by the host states.
A former refugee and internally displaced person, M. Ashraf Haidari is the Director-General of Policy & Strategy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan, and formerly served as the country’s Deputy Chief of Mission to India. Prior to this, he was Afghanistan’s Deputy Assistant National Security Advisor, as well as Afghan Chargé d’Affaires to the United States. He tweets @MAshrafHaidari