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Afghan refugees are nationals of Afghanistan who left their country as a result of major wars or persecution. The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan marks the first wave of internal displacement and refugee flow from Afghanistan to neighboring Pakistan and Iran that began providing shelter to Afghan refugees. When the Soviet war ended in 1989, these refugees started to return to their homeland. In April 1992, a major civil war began after the mujahideen took over control of Kabul and the other major cities. Afghans again fled to neighboring countries.
A total of 6.3 million Afghan refugees were hosted in Pakistan and Iran by 1990. As of 2013, Afghanistan was the largest refugee-producing country in the world, a title held for 32 years. Afghans are currently the second largest refugee group after Syrian refugees. The majority of Afghan refugees (95%) are located in Iran and Pakistan. Some countries that were part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) took in small number of Afghans that worked with their respective forces. Ethnic minorities, like Afghan Sikhs and Hindus, often fled to India.
Internally displaced Afghans
There are over one million internally displaced people in Afghanistan. The majority of the IDPs in Afghanistan are as a direct and indirect result of conflict and violence, although there are also reasons of natural disasters. The Soviet invasion caused approximately 2 million Afghans to be internally displaced, mostly from rural areas into urban areas. The Afghan Civil War (1992-96) caused a new wave of internal displacement, with many Afghans moving to northern cities in order to get away from the Taliban ruled areas. Afghanistan continues to suffer from insecurity and conflict, which has led to an increase in internal displacement.
According to the UNHCR, there are approximately 2.6 million registered refugees in 70 countries around the world, with the majority (95 per cent) being hosted by two countries, the Islamic Republics of Iran and Pakistan. About three in four Afghans have gone through internal, external or multiple displacement in their lives.
Pakistan has been home to over a million refugees for 40 years. 1.5 million officially registered Afghan refugees were reported to be living in Pakistan in addition to approximately 1 million more unregistered refugees. Recently however, due to security concerns as well as increasing political tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan, there has been an influx of refugees returning to Afghanistan. Pakistan initially allowed Afghan refugees legal refugee status until December 31 of 2016, after which they would be required to leave or be deported, however in September the deadline of their return was extended until March 31, 2017.
On December 16, 2014, there was a terrorist attack on a school in Peshawar by the Pakistani Taliban group Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP), the leaders of which are based in Afghanistan  in areas outside of Kabul control according to senior Pakistani officials. The attack killed at least 145 people, most of them school children. Following the attack, the Pakistani government adopted the National Action Plan (NAP) to tackle terrorism and one of the 20 points of this action plan was to establish a comprehensive policy to register Afghan refugees. Since 2015, there have been reports of Afghan refugees in Pakistan encountering serious harassment, hostility, and pressure to return to Afghanistan. There has been an ongoing exodus of tens of thousands of refugees as of February 2015. According to the Human Rights Watch, in 2016 there were about 365,000 documented and 200,000 undocumented Afghan refugees repatriated from Pakistan. The mass exodus has been described as voluntary repatriation by the Pakistan government as well as UNHCR, however in a recent report the Human Rights Watch described it as unlawful coercion of Afghan refugees and voluntariness of return has been questioned.
According to The World Factbook, in 2015 there were about 1 million registered and between 1.5 and 2.0 million undocumented refugees in Iran. The majority of these refugees were born in Iran during the last three and a half decades, however they are still considered citizens of Afghanistan. In 2016, there was a decrease of spontaneous returns from Iran by 21 per cent (316,430 in 2015 to 248,764 in 2016) and a decrease of deportations by 14 per cent (from 227,601 to 194,763) compared to 2015 figures. Iran's initial response towards Afghan refugees, driven by religious solidarity, was an open door policy where Afghans in Iran had freedom of movement to travel or work in any city in addition to subsidies for gas, food and health coverage (Koepke, 2011),. Starting in the early 2000s when the Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Affairs (BAFIA) of Iran started registration of all foreigners, including refugee, and issued temporary residence cards. In 2000, the Iranian government also initiated a joint repatriation program with the UNHCR. Since the 2000s, there have been laws passed in order to encourage the repatriation of Afghan refugees, such as limits on employment, areas of residence, and access to services including education.
After the removal of the Taliban regime in late 2001, over 5 million Afghans were repatriated through the UNHCR from Pakistan and Iran to Afghanistan. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans began returning to Afghanistan in recent years. According to the United Nations, by the end of 2016 about 600,000 documented and undocumented Afghans were repatriated from Pakistan. According to the IOM, the return of undocumented Afghan refugees from Pakistan in 2016 were more than twice the number of 2015, increased by 108 per cent from 2015 (around 248,054 versus 119,279). The remaining registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan numbers around 1.3 million. In the same year, UNHCR reported that 951,142 Afghans were living in Iran. Most of them were born and raised in Pakistan and Iran in the last three and a half decades but are still considered citizens of Afghanistan.
On March 17, 2003, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the UNHCR signed a tripartite agreement, as an effort to facilitate voluntary repatriation of Afghan refugees from Pakistan. Additionally in 2012, the International Conference on the Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees to Support Voluntary Repatriation, Sustainable Reintegration and Assistance to Host Countries (SSAR) kicked off the quadripartite initiative with the Islamic Republics of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan and UNHCR to facilitate voluntary repatriation, sustainable reintegration, and the provision of aid to host countries. In 2015, the high level segment of the UNHCR's 66th Executive Committee meeting concentrated on Afghan refugees. This was an effort to bring international attention and promote sustainable solutions for the Afghan refugee situation.
Due to the ongoing conflict, insecurity, unemployment, and poverty in Afghanistan, the Afghan government has had difficulty coping with its internally displaced population in addition to the influx of returnees in a short period of time. In order to meet the needs of returning refugees, within its 2017 Humanitarian Response Plan for Afghanistan, the UN has appealed the international community for $240 million in humanitarian assistance.
As shown in the table below, the refugees fled Afghanistan in four main waves: