BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: World: South Asia
Front Page 
World 
Africa 
Americas 
Asia-Pacific 
Europe 
Middle East 
South Asia 
-------------
From Our Own Correspondent 
-------------
Letter From America 
UK 
UK Politics 
Business 
Sci/Tech 
Health 
Education 
Entertainment 
Talking Point 
In Depth 
AudioVideo 

Thursday, 11 January, 2001, 22:32 GMT
Afghan refugees' unending plight
Afghan refugees in Pakistan
Afghan refugees in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province
By Pam O'Toole

Over 20 years after conflict first broke out in their country, Afghans remain the biggest single refugee group in the world. More than 2.6 million of them remain in exile, the vast majority in Iran and Pakistan.

Originally they were the victims of Cold War conflict, fleeing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

Over the next 10 years, as fighting continued between the occupying Soviet forces and a disparate coalition of Afghan Mujaheddin groups backed by the West, Afghans continued to leave their country in large numbers.

By 1989, when Soviet troops finally withdrew from Afghanistan under the terms of a UN sponsored peace settlement, Iran and Pakistan were playing host to around six million Afghan refugees.

Slow repatriation

In the early 1990s, as the disparate Afghan Mujaheddin groups who had united against Soviet forces struggled to set up their own government, large numbers of Afghans began to return, even though fighting soon erupted again between the Mujaheddin factions.

Afghan refugees
Children who have known nothing but exile
By 1996, when the radical Islamic Taleban movement captured the Afghan capital, Kabul, only about 2.7 million remained outside Afghanistan's borders.

Since then repatriation has been slow, despite the fact that both Iran and Pakistan, struggling with their own economic problems, have been encouraging the refugees to return home.

Last year Iran launched a major voluntary repatriation scheme aimed at many of the estimated 1.4 million Afghans on its territory, which led to more than almost 200,000 returning to their homeland, either independently or with support from the United Nations.

Drought

But repatriation programmes were scaled back after it became clear that Afghanistan was suffering its worst drought in almost 30 years.

Afghans in exile
Iran
over 1.3 million
Pakistan
1.2 million
Netherlands
20,300
Germany
16,600
India
14,500
Tajikistan
4,500
United Kingdom
3,500
Denmark
2,300
Kazakhstan
2,300
Others
11,700
That drought, combined with continued fighting and allegations of continuing human rights abuses, has led to thousands more Afghans being internally displaced or even crossing international borders.

Internal displacement now stands at around 150,000, while more than 60,000 new Afghan refugees fled to Pakistan during the last four months of 2000.

Afghan refugees have a variety of reasons for wishing to remain in exile. Many are religious or ethnic minorities who allege that they have suffered human rights abuses at the hands of the Taleban movement, which is largely Sunni and ethnic Pashtoon.

Others were officials under the former Soviet-backed government of Dr Najibullah.

Refugee groups maintain that various Taleban restrictions on female education and employment have also prompted a renewed exodus of Afghan intellectuals.

The Taleban themselves insist that people are leaving Afghanistan for purely economic reasons and say that UN sanctions against the movement are exacerbating an already desperate economic situation.

No end in sight

The past few years have also seen a rise in the number of Afghan asylum seekers arriving in the West, some of whom have previously spent years living as refugees in Iran or Pakistan.

Refugees in Peshawar, Pakistan
Some refugees are wary of the Taleban
Some maintain that they left the region because they are being made to feel increasingly unwelcome in those countries, or because they were not being offered sufficient educational or employment opportunities.

So far there is no sign of an end to Afghanistan's 20 year conflict. The recent drought has further damaged the country's already devastated economy.

With little to look forward to at home, for the time being, most of the 2.6 million Afghan refugees are likely to opt to remain in exile.


Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console
BBC RADIO NEWS
BBC ONE TV NEWS
WORLD NEWS SUMMARY
PROGRAMMES GUIDE
See also:

09 Jan 01 | South Asia
UN moves to save Afghan refugees
08 Dec 00 | Media reports
Afghan refugees stranded in no-man's land
12 Sep 00 | South Asia
Afghan refugees head for Tajikistan
22 Dec 00 | South Asia
UN funding hole threatens refugees
21 Dec 00 | South Asia
Pakistan warns of Afghan exodus
Internet links:


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more South Asia stories are at the foot of the page.


E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more South Asia stories