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Refugees Magazine Issue 109 (1997 In Review) - Afghanistan

Refugees Magazine, 1 September 1997

It was a year of turmoil in Afghanistan. The mostly Pashtun Taliban forces battled the opposition Northern Alliance, which includes the country's next three largest ethnic groups, on various fronts and as the year progressed the ethnic divide became increasingly bitter.

Civilians were the main victims of the ongoing conflicts. Since the Taliban captured the Afghan capital of Kabul in September 1996, more than 300,000 people have been displaced, forcibly ejected from their homes or fled, fearing persecution. An additional 50,000 people went to Pakistan and possibly a similar number to Iran.

In contrast, an estimated 85,000 Afghans went home in 1997, a respectable number by global standards, but in the Afghan context the lowest annual return since 1988. In an effort to increase the rate of return UNHCR announced a new, more dynamic strategy called 'targeted group repatriation' which will run parallel to the existing assistance programme that has benefited 2.5 million of the nearly four million Afghans who have already returned from Pakistan and Iran.

The project identifies specific groups of refugees in Pakistan who are keen to return to relatively peaceful districts in Afghanistan, but cannot do so because of particular obstacles such as the presence of mines, destroyed infrastructure or lack of job opportunities. These problems are evaluated with the help of the refugees and then UNHCR, other UN agencies and NGOs design a package to tackle the specific hurdles.

By autumn, 10 districts had been designated as pilot projects and advance parties returned to two of them. A convoy of 308 refugees, subsidized and escorted by UNHCR, arrived in mid-September in Tizin, a remote string of destroyed villages 50 miles south-west of Kabul where families were given tents and building materials and cooperating agencies undertook a series of support projects. Elders of the remaining 30,000 Tizin refugees in Pakistan said more people would return home in Spring following encouraging reports from the returnees.

A second convoy of 558 refugees left Chitral in northern Pakistan on September 27. The journey home was expected to take four days. It took nine. Twelve heavily loaded trucks and a UNHCR escort struggled over disintegrating tracks, crossed a 4,600 metre pass, forded rivers, endured a snow storm and numerous breakdowns and had some tense encounters with armed fighters before reaching their destination in Keshim district, one of the most fertile and prosperous river valleys in the northern Afghan province of .

Homecoming, however, was a bitter-sweet affair. Hundreds of relatives, alerted by a BBC radio report, lined the road into Keshim to welcome the convoy and men loosed off thousands of celebratory rounds of semi-automatic and machine-gun fire. The following morning, rival local commanders fought a gunbattle in the main bazaar, leaving seven dead. Although the returnees were not involved in the fighting, it provided a stark reminder that the decision to return to anywhere in Afghanistan, even to somewhere as relatively well-off as Keshim, can never be taken lightly.




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

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.
Afghanistan: Mariam's StoryPlay video

Afghanistan: Mariam's Story

Mariam was a refugee in Iran for six years. The widow and mother returned in 2002 and has been internally displaced ever since. Her situation is very uncertain.