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Refugees Magazine Issue 108 (Afghanistan : the unending crisis) - The most difficult choice

Refugees Magazine, 1 June 1997

Most refugees will ultimately face the most difficult choice: whether to return home, continue life as a refugee or start a new life in a new country. Afghan refugees face a particularly complex decision

By Rob Breen

Ustad Miara is in a dilemma. He is facing the hardest choice of his life.

Ustad was a respected teacher of chemistry and atomic science in Kabul until war engulfed Afghanistan and his life collapsed. The professor, his wife and four children fled from refuge to refuge, always trying to stay one step ahead of the fighting, but tragedy eventually caught up with them when one child was killed in the turmoil. The family eventually reached Pakistan and the comparative safety of a refugee camp in 1994 where Ustad swapped his classroom texbooks for a loom and began to weave carpets and try to put his life back together again.

Three years on, Ustad Miara is grappling with the question that millions of refugees worldwide will eventually face: he could now go home, but he has no family left in Afghanistan and the country is still in turmoil. Should he then stay as a refugee or try to establish a new, permanent life somewhere else? "We would go back if there was peace," the teacher says. "But the present situation is not acceptable. One time there is fighting, one time there is peace. One never knows."

Some refugees are 'lucky' in the sense that peace has been restored in their homeland and the future is hopeful if they do decide to return. Afghanistan is more complex. Nearly four million people have already gone home, but 2.7 million remain marooned in Pakistan, Iran, India and CIS countries. The conflict inside Afghanistan is continuing sporadically and the country's economic and social structures are in ruins.

This bleak picture breeds uncertainty and indecision among refugees. Prior to the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989, many refugees told UNHCR field workers they would return home as soon as a new government was installed in Kabul. Experts had predicted the collapse of the Soviet-installed regime within a matter of months. No one forecast that it would take the mujahedeen three years to seize power. True to their word, refugees began flooding home in the summer of 1992 during an initial flush of optimism.

In reality, the collapse of the Najibullah regime in 1992 ushered in yet another civil war between competing factions. Five years later, it continues to drag on, greatly complicating repatriation. If and when the fighting ends, refugees will be far more cautious about rushing back until they are totally confident that a meaningful peace will indeed hold this time.

In the meantime, in tea houses scattered throughout the refugee villages, an almost daily vigorous debate continues on the question that dominates the exiles' lives. Many refugees are from rural areas of Afghanistan which have remained relatively peaceful and issues other than security are involved in any decision about the future. Economic viability is high on the list. Kabul has always been an important marketplace for rural products and so the return to villages is directly linked with both security and the renewal of economic activity in the capital.

Prior to the war, at least one member of any rural family worked in Kabul and sent money back to the village. These same workers have now found employment in Pakistan, Iran and the Gulf countries. Family separations are so common the term nimkora (which means split family) is employed when half the family works in one place to support the family at home. "Some of my relatives went back when the mujahedeen took power," an Afghan shopkeeper in Pakistan said. "Their eldest sons are still in Pakistan sending them money."

Ethnic issues are also a complication. Afghan rulers early this century purposely distributed lands in the north to Pashtuns who became a landowning minority among the native Tajik population. In the last 15 years some of these lands were seized by local non-Pashtun mujahedeen commanders. As the two ethnic groups fought and refought across the region and military fortunes see-sawed, so the refugees were forced constantly to revise their plans to return home.

The Afghanistan that refugees left in 1980 is very different from today's reality. Villages are empty, schools and clinics have been destroyed and once productive agricultural lands have become dangerous minefields. Reconstruction has been limited, but it is a Catch-22 situation. Refugees don't want to return to a devastated region, but much of the reconstruction cannot be undertaken until they do go home and help in rebuilding the country.

In urban areas changes have been even greater. The Soviets challenged centuries-old Afghan traditions and, among other things, created new opportunities for women. Under the mujahedeen, cities which had previously been relatively untouched by war, were devastated in rocket attacks. Finally, with the arrival of the Taliban, physical security has been established at the cost of individual liberties.

If the country has changed, so have the refugees. Many of the refugee population were born in

the camps and are now reaching adulthood. They have had better access to health and education facilities. Though the Taliban have imposed new restrictions on female employment and girls' education, this will be less of a factor than the accumulated exposure to new ideas and foreign ways.

Most Afghans want to go home despite all these difficulties. But as years pass and the fighting continues, their ability to return diminishes and the memories of Afghanistan 'before the war' become mere folktales handed down from father to son.

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 117 (1999)




UNHCR country pages

Cold, Uncomfortable and Hungry in Calais

For years, migrants and asylum-seekers have flocked to the northern French port of Calais in hopes of crossing the short stretch of sea to find work and a better life in England. This hope drives many to endure squalid, miserable conditions in makeshift camps, lack of food and freezing temperatures. Some stay for months waiting for an opportunity to stow away on a vehicle making the ferry crossing.

Many of the town's temporary inhabitants are fleeing persecution or conflict in countries such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Sudan and Syria. And although these people are entitled to seek asylum in France, the country's lack of accommodation, administrative hurdles and language barrier, compel many to travel on to England where many already have family waiting.

With the arrival of winter, the crisis in Calais intensifies. To help address the problem, French authorities have opened a day centre as well as housing facilities for women and children. UNHCR is concerned with respect to the situation of male migrants who will remain without shelter solutions. Photographer Julien Pebrel recently went to Calais to document their lives in dire sites such as the Vandamme squat and next to the Tioxide factory.

Cold, Uncomfortable and Hungry in Calais

Afghan Refugees in Iran

At a recent conference in Geneva, the international community endorsed a "solutions strategy" for millions of Afghan refugees and those returning to Afghanistan after years in exile. The plan, drawn up between Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and UNHCR, aims to support repatriation, sustainable reintegration and assistance to host countries.

It will benefit refugee returnees to Afghanistan as well as 3 million Afghan refugees, including 1 million in Iran and 1.7 million in Pakistan.

Many of the refugees in Iran have been living there for more than three decades. This photo set captures the lives of some of these exiles, who wait in hope of a lasting solution to their situation.

Afghan Refugees in Iran

More focus needed on reintegration of former Afghan refugees

Many of the more than 5.5 million Afghan refugees who have returned home since 2002 are still struggling to survive. Lack of land, job opportunities and other services, combined with poor security in some places, has caused many returnees to head to urban areas. While cities offer the promise of informal day labour, the rising cost of rental accommodation and basic commodities relegate many returnees to life in one of the informal settlements which have mushroomed across Kabul in recent years. Some families are living under canvases and the constant threat of eviction, while others have gained a toe-hold in abandoned buildings around the city.

UNHCR gives humanitarian assistance to the most vulnerable, and is currently rallying support from donors and humanitarian and development agencies to redouble efforts to help returning refugees reintegrate in Afghanistan.

More focus needed on reintegration of former Afghan refugees

Croatia; Destination UnknownPlay video

Croatia; Destination Unknown

Pakistan: Returning HomePlay video

Pakistan: Returning Home

Since the beginning of November, UNHCR has been offering an enhanced package to every registered refugee in Pakistan choosing to go home to Afghanistan.
Afghanistan HomecomingPlay video

Afghanistan Homecoming

Since 2002, UNHCR has helped nearly 4 million Afghan refugees to return home from Pakistan. Recently, Ahmed Shafiq made the journey with his family after 15 years as a refugee. This is his story.