Background: The Afghan Refugee Crisis

Updated: Jan 21, 2019

by Elana Wong

Afghan refugee Sharbat Gula, taken in 1984. Sharbat was recently in the news again after being arrested as an illegal in Pakistan. Image credit: Steve McCurry, National Geographic

The Afghan refugee crisis is arguably one of the largest and most infamous protracted situations. Despite the recent bipartite repatriation agreement between Afghanistan and the EU, the protracted displacement situation continues. 

The crisis can be broken down into four ‘waves' of displacement, following four main conflicts:

- The 1979 Soviet Intervention of the Afghan unrest, which was complicated by US and Soviet rivalry, and the Soviet-Afghan War, fought by guerrilla groups (mujahideen) backed by the US, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, that followed. During this time, 1/3 of Afghanistan’s pre-war population fled to Pakistan or Iran, as well as further on to North American, Europe, Australia and other parts of the world. After the war subsided in 1989, there was an optimistic wave of repatriation. 

- However, from 1992-97, conflicting factions of the mujahideen, and later the Taliban, engaged in a violent power struggle that drove a second significant wave of displacement. Civilians were regularly targeted by rocket fire, shot directly into civilian areas and homes, and warlords committed crimes such as extortion, rape, and murder. 

An Afghan refugee washes his hands in an abandoned rail carriage in central Belgrade, 2017. Image Credit: Elham Ehsas, instagram @doradzo

- From 1994, the Taliban became major players. By late 1996, they had captured Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. Though initially popular amongst Afghans, seen as a reprieve from the corruption and violence of the mujahideen, their strict and often inhumane implementation of Sharia law, as well as drought, instigated more flight. Famously, they banned activities such as television/movies, dancing, kite-flying (a previously important part of Afghan culture), beard trimming, as well as the prohibiting women from leaving the home without a male guardian, enforcing burka-wearing, and restricting them from employment and education. Ahmad Shah Massoud, who resisted Taliban control, appealed to the European Parliament for help in 2001, saying that they had introduced a ‘very wrong perception of Islam. During this time, 1 million people fled the Taliban.

A small group of Afghan refugees perform a traditional dance (the Attan) as the Calais jungle closes around them. Image credit: Elham Ehsas, instagram @doradzo

- In October 2001 after the 9/11 attacks, the US invaded Afghanistan, with the objective of dismantling Al Qaeda’s support in Afghanistan, especially Osama bin Laden, and removing the Taliban from power. After their fall, there was a huge wave of returns but, with the ‘War on Terror’, a fourth phase was triggered. In  2015, a number of international physician organisations and coalitions put together a report that 106,000- 170,000 civilians had been killed in the fighting. 

In 2016, the UN recorded 3,498 civilians deaths and 7,920 injuries, mostly attributed to anti-government forces. Despite announcements by the US and NATO that their forces would withdraw, transferring power to the Afghan government, as of 2017 over 13,000 troops still remain in the country. 

Today, conflict and violence continues to disturb the country. Mere days ago, 6th May 2018, saw a mosque bombing in the Khost province that killed 17 and wounded 37. Despite this, in 2016, the EU and Afghanistan signed the ‘Joint Way Forward’ repatriation agreement, designating Afghanistan as a ‘safe’ country, and allowing the EU to deport back an unlimited number of Afghan asylum seekers. This, as well as incentive-based repatriation schemes from Pakistan and Iran, has resulted in large numbers of secondary displacement, particularly in now heavily overpopulated urban areas. 

An Afghan refugee in the Calais Jungle works as a full time baker to make ends meet. Image credit: Elham Ehsas, instagram @doradzo

Repatriation and incentive schemes such as these are part of a huge problem, driven by international attitudes focused solely on repatriation and not sustainable solutions. The Joint Way Forward in particular has been heavily criticised as a program of premature return to an Afghanistan still rife with conflict, with an economy unable to support them. Even worse, after so many years, many returnees, especially the younger generations born and raised abroad or in refugee camps, have returned to a country that they don’t know at all, foreigners in a country they have never known. 


European External Action Service 2016

UNAMA 2016

Ahmad Shah Massoud- The Lion of Afghanistan

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