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Afghan Refugees: Humanitarian Paradoxes Of 40 Years? – OpEd

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It is really difficult to measure and map the intensity of pain in the mind of Juliet Stevenson when she said that, “We have a legal and moral obligation to protect people fleeing bombs, bullets and tyrants, and throughout history, those people have enriched our society.” Despite being the graveyard of the empire, Afghanistan has been failed to check the external intervention compelling its people to live under the shadow of bombs, bullets, external intervention turning them into refugees. Since the first wave (1978), the refugees have been dying for a better life i.e., more than hell.

During the last four decades, given the several factors from external intervention, ethnic civil war to geopolitical designs, the Afghan refugee wave has not been stopped even yet. Notwithstanding, some provisions of International refugee resettlement mechanisms, the very own people are used to be taken as a burden and even the host countries have taken them an extra burden. In this backdrop, the main argument is, the external intervention has become one of the major factors for the Afghan refugee crisis. But when the issues like hosting, rehabilitation, reintegration of Afghan refugees emerge, the role of countries responsible for the same crisis has not been matching with their intentions, and capacities.

Afghan Refugee: Rationale and Refuge

Although, there is a long history of Afghan refugee migration, but in the current scenario, the same was started with the Saur Revolution. Scholars like Westermann, (1999) and Bowersox (2004) have argued that Afghanistan has been undergoing political and strategic turmoil since the 1970s. Given the background of genocide by the PDPA; and the political repression on part of the Mujahedeen, Taliban autocratic regime and of course the developed countries external intervention in the post- 1979 and 9/11, led to the mass exodus of the Afghan citizens.

The Saur Revolution was one of the first kind of factors, which put the Afghan people to severe repression generally unknown till the end of the monarchy. In the context of the link between the refugee and revolution, Kaplan (1990) has argued that although Afghanistan had historically been remained extremely poor and underdeveloped, but it had “never known very much political repression” until 1978. It was entrapped in another external intervention, the Soviet invasion resulted in the Soviet-Afghan War (1979 – 1989). With external support, the local people were turned into Mujahedeen. The Mujahedeen fought against the Soviet Army and the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan Government. The proxy war between the Mujahedeen and Soviet Army resulted in million killings of civilians and made people as refugees under the shadow of bombs and bullets. Moreover, the New Great Game believed to another factor for the political upheaval.

Another wave of refugees started during the civil war and Taliban rule. By the establishment of an autocratic regime under the Taliban, they controlled the considerable areas of the country. Under the autocratic regime, the Afghan people started experiencing the violation of human and fundamental rights. The military conflict between the Taliban regime and the Northern Alliance led to the exodus of refugees. The US-led war in Afghanistan in the post 9/11 with the objectives of termination of terrorism and fundamentalism, rather came as a serious humanitarian crisis for the local people. The deployment of ISAF turned Afghanistan into a war field and the civilians have to live under the shadow of bombs and bullets since 9/11 attack.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that “Afghanistan has remained the world’s top producer of refugees for the 32nd year in a row.” As per the UNHCR’s Global Trend Report (19th June 2019), it has been put on record that about 70.8 million people are forcibly displaced throughout the world i.e., refugees (25.9 million), asylum seekers (3.5 million) and Internally Displaced People (41.3 million). In this grim scene, Afghan refugees are placed in the second slot after the Syrian refugees.

The Afghan refugees have completed about 40 years (The 1979-2019) in Pakistan. The year of the Afghan refugee influx (1979), the Pakistan Government established the Commissionerate of Afghan Refugees in the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions (SAFRON), having Chief Commissionerate based in Islamabad in order to institutionalize the settlement of the Afghan refugees in each provincial capital except the province of Sindh. The main functions of these Commissionerates to coordinate with the UNHCR to look after the Afghan refugees. Pakistan has been housing the Afghan refugees covering 1.5 million officially registered and about 1 million unregistered amounting to 2.5 million.

The second major destination for Afghan refugees in Iran. Although, Iran has received a myriad number of refugees, but it has been considered as a supportive host country. Given the religious proximity, Iran’s initial response towards refugees was very positive and more or less pursued the open door policy towards the same. Farzin and Farshid (2013) have argued that Iran had given freedom of travel or work in any city along with the provision of subsidies for gas, food and health coverage etc. However, in the early 2000s, the Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Affairs (BAFIA) of Iran used to issue temporary residence cards to the refugees along with their registration. In the same year, the Iranian government has also started a joint repatriation program with the UNHCR.

Rights of Refugees

Human rights, fundamental rights and physical security of the citizens are supposed to take care of by the motherland country. But given the same reasons, if the mother country failed to do so, the citizen could be placed in the category of refugees. Here, the role of UNHCR’s comes into play, where it takes responsibility to ensure that states should be made aware along with actions towards their obligations to protect the rights of the refugees.

But at the same time, it is apt to say that the UNHRC is not a supranational organization. It should not be taken as a substitute for the government’s responsibility, rather the states have obligations to cooperate and coordinate with the UNHCR. The refugees have remained the worst sufferers of human rights, fundamental rights, who used to undergo horrible experiences in day to day life related to security and the worst part of life is to face the lack of basic necessities etc. Thus, the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951) – Article 33, stands for the rights of refugees as, “No Contracting State shall expel or return (refouler) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

40 Years of Humanitarian Paradoxes for Afghan Refugees

The first question is, how the Afghan refugees have been taken by Afghanistan per se and the other host countries. How these people have been provided with the basic necessities? What is the role of external powers to take care of the human rights of the refugees? As per the report Plan-2018, ‘Return and Reintegration Response’ Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation (Afghanistan), more than 12 million have been displaced internally and externally during the last four decade given the conflicts resulting into socio-economic challenges. As far as the repatriation is concerned, over 7 million Afghans rejoined their motherland Afghanistan including 5.2 million assisted under the UNHCR’s facilitated return programme. Pakistan and Iran are the major hosting countries from where over 619,000 repatriated in 2017 alone. It has been reported that between 2002 and 2019, a total of 4.4 million Afghan refugees have been repatriated from Pakistan only.

In order to further institutionalize and facilitate the repatriation programme, the 6th Quadripartite Steering Committee Meeting was held in Islamabad (June 17, 2019), in which representatives (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and UNHCR) had reiterated their commitment for the implementation of the Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees [SSAR]. Even in this meeting, the representatives were agreed to extend the Refugee Repatriation Program till 2021. The 6th Quadripartite Steering Committee Meeting was followed by the another Tripartite Commission Meeting (Pakistan, Afghanistan and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on June 18, 2019. The focal points of this meeting was a joint 12-point declaration aimed at the safe and honourable repatriation, the development of the Policy Framework and Action Plan and the implementation of Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF).

As far as the humanitarian perspective of the Afghan refugees is concerned, it has become a very challengeable task for the Afghanistan government how to manage the issues of the returned refugees. As per the Report Plan -2018, ‘Return and Reintegration Response’ Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation (Afghanistan), the returnees have been facing challenges i.e., lack of job, livelihood opportunities, inadequate basic services, insecurity, and lack of land and housing and these problems have been limiting the potential of returnees and IDPs to re-establish their families. In an exclusive interview (2003) with Al Jazeera, UNHCR Salvatore Lombardo had anticipated in context of the Afghan refugees that, “…. because of the insecurity many of them cannot go back to the places where they came from,” the opinion of the same still holds validity in the current scenario.

The same report goes with Iran. As per the one policy brief report of Strandand, Suhrke, Harpviken (2014), in which they have argued that the Afghan refugees considered as a significant burden and now it is the time for them to leave Iran and go back to Afghanistan. This indicates that there is a great concern on part of Iran as now Afghan refugees are getting involved in the drug smuggling, violence and even killing of Iranian border security personnel on the international border. On the other hand, despite the provision of the basic necessities, Afghan refugees feel that they are no longer required or welcome in Iran given the overt discrimination and harassment, lack of opportunities in higher education (2003), no compensation in case of death/disabled etc.

Despite the close proximity and geo-cultural links, Pakistan has remained a preferred destination for Afghan refugees. In Pakistan, the Afghan refugees used to considered as an additional economic and social burden on Pakistan. According to one former Pakistani Minister Pakistan had spent about $200 billion for the Afghan refugees during the last couple of decade and now Pakistan is not in a position to afford the economic burden any more. Reid (2017) has pointed out that the highest registered refugees are hosted by Pakistan (1,352,160) and Iran (951,142); followed by Germany-46,292; Australia-20,220; Sweden-16,558; Italy-16,033; Greece-11440; UK-9752; Switzerland-5697 and Turkey-3423. It means the major rabble-rouser countries are not figuring in this list anywhere.

At last, it can be concluded that the Afghan refugees have been living in more than 70 countries. During the last forty years, an overwhelming number of Afghan refugees, i.e., 95 per cent continued to be hosted by just the two countries Pakistan and Iran as reported by the BBC News. Despite these countries’ endeavours to extend help beyond their economic and social capacities, the refugee crisis still keeps on lingering. The day to day lives of refugees sans of basic necessities, education, health, employment opportunities including violation of human and fundamental rights, overt discrimination, harassment, violence etc. In this backdrop, the lives of Afghan refugees can be characterized as a nightmare, bad to worse, dying for a better life, hell is better than refugee camp/country etc.

Whereas on the other hand, the countries that propagate the fundamental and human rights, democracy, non-interference, unity, integrity, sovereignty, general and nuclear weapon free world along with refugee rights believed that the preferred solution of this problem is to provide security and the basic necessities to the Afghan refugees by the neighbouring countries. What a paradox of humanitarian crisis for the Afghan refugees? Then, what is the solution? Afghanistan has to understand the geological evil designs. Divided Afghanistan falls and united Afghanistan stands. Let the Afghani people, minus third party choose their roadmap for peace, prosperity and development. Then, there will no refugees and no need of alms.

*About the authors:

  • Dr. Jaspal Kaur (AP), teaches in the Department of Law, Regional Campus Jalandhar, Guru Nank Dev University (Amritsar).
  • Dr. Bawa Singh is teaching at the Centre for South and Central Asian Studies, School of Global Relations, Central University of Punjab, Bathinda, India

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