U.S. Committee for Refugees World Refugee Survey 2002 - Afghanistan

At the end of 2001, some 4.5 million Afghans were living as refugees in other countries. A large majority were in Iran (2.4 million) and Pakistan (2.2 million). Some 30,000 were in other countries in the region, mostly in Tajikistan (16,000) and India (12,000). According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 52,927 Afghans filed asylum applications in Europe, North America, and Oceania during the year, the largest number in Austria (12,957), the United Kingdom (9,190), Germany (5,853), Slovak Republic (4,315), and Hungary (4,311). In Europe, the number of asylum applications by Afghans increased by 60 percent over the previous year and made Afghanistan the source of the largest number of asylum applicants in Europe in 2001.

It was difficult to estimate with any accuracy the number of Afghans who were internally displaced primarily because of conflict, but the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR) believed the figure to be about 1 million at year's end.

More than 200,000 Afghans fled to Pakistan during the year (thousands also fled to Iran, but there were no reliable estimates of their number). Some 21,000 Afghans repatriated from Pakistan through a UNHCR-assisted program; an estimated 45,000 others repatriated on their own. Pakistan forcibly returned more than 3,000 Afghans during the year. Approximately 144,000 Afghans repatriated "spontaneously" from Iran (although many did so because the Iranian authorities would not assist them or permit them to work). Iran forcibly returned an estimated 120,000 Afghans during the year.

Afghanistan became the focus of world attention in late 2001, after the United States determined that members of the Afghanistan-based Al Qaeda organization were responsible for the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. On October 6, the United States launched a military operation in Afghanistan aimed at rooting out Al Qaeda followers and overthrowing the radical Islamist Taliban regime, which controlled most of Afghanistan and permitted Al Qaeda to operate freely.

Events Prior to 2001

Afghanistan has experienced continuous internal conflict since a communist government seized power in 1978 and Soviet forces invaded and occupied the country in 1979. In the early 1980s, exiled Afghans launched an armed opposition to Soviet rule. The United States and its allies, as well as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and other Islamic countries, provided massive financial support to the mujahedin, as the opposition forces were known. Afghanistan became a major Cold War battlefield, and millions of Afghan refugees fled the country.

The conflict between the mujahedin and the Soviets continued throughout most of the 1980s. Moscow withdrew its troops from Afghanistan in 1988, but fighting continued between the mujahedin and the communist regime that the Soviets had left in power. By 1990, more than 6 million Afghans were refugees in other countries, mostly in Pakistan and Iran. The mujahedin succeeded in ousting the Soviet's successors in 1992; more than 1.4 million Afghans repatriated in the months following their victory.

In subsequent years, infighting among the various mujahedin factions deterred many Afghans from repatriating, sent hundreds of thousands of new refugees into Pakistan and Iran, and internally displaced large numbers of people. In the mid-1990s, returned refugees who had studied in Islamic schools in refugee camps in Pakistan joined with local religious leaders to form a new faction, the Taliban, which gained momentum and seized control over southern Afghanistan and Kabul. By the late 1990s, the Taliban controlled 95 percent of the country.

The Taliban, comprised mostly of ethnic Pashtuns, enforced rigid behavioral codes on the population and restricted women's and girls' access to employment, health care, and education. Under Taliban rule, Afghanistan became the world's largest source of heroin.

Opposition forces comprised mostly of ethnic minority former mujahedin remained in control of Badakshan province in northeastern Afghanistan and other isolated pockets of northern Afghanistan. Fighting between the Taliban and opposition forces, the widespread destruction associated with the conflict, and human rights abuses perpetrated by both sides against the civilian population continued to cause refugee flight throughout the late 1990s.

Beginning in 2000, the most severe drought to hit Afghanistan in more than 30 years exacerbated harsh conditions for millions of Afghan civilians. A major Afghan refugee influx into Pakistan began in June 2000 and accelerated in October, following further heavy fighting in northern Afghanistan. Some 172,000 Afghans fled to Pakistan in 2000; hundreds of thousands of others became internally displaced.

While much of the new displacement occurred in northern Afghanistan, tens of thousands of displaced persons also sought refuge in the western city of Herat, where they settled in impromptu camps. Humanitarian organizations' attempts to assist the displaced were hampered by lack of funds, and in late 2000, the World Food Program (WFP) appealed for additional urgent donations, warning that it had only enough food to feed the displaced in Herat and nearby areas through February 2001.

Despite an escalating humanitarian emergency throughout Afghanistan that placed millions of Afghans at risk, the international community provided relatively little assistance. The Taliban authorities also did little to meet displaced Afghans' humanitarian needs. Although members of the Taliban's Ministry of Martyrs and Refugees were active in the coordination of relief activities in most localities, the Taliban appeared to devote all of its available resources to its war effort.

Displacement before September 11

In early 2001, one nongovernmental organization (NGO) described the situation in Afghanistan as "truly apocalyptic." At a meeting of donor governments, the UN asked for immediate pledges of $3.5 million for emergency food, shelter, and blankets, but only received $200,000.

USCR visited Afghanistan in January 2001 to assess the growing emergency, particularly the plight of the estimated 60,000 internally displaced persons near Herat. USCR found that many of the displaced lacked food and shelter and that additional assistance was urgently needed. Shortly after USCR's visit, more than 100 displaced persons died at one of the camps near Herat because of cold temperatures and lack of shelter and blankets.

Advocacy efforts by USCR and other NGOs prompted the United States to airlift emergency supplies to the camps near Herat and significantly increase assistance to other displaced Afghans and Afghan refugees. On February 6, USCR issued a press release welcoming the United States' quick response. The European Union and Japan also pledged additional humanitarian aid for the region.

Fighting and the effects of drought continued to displace thousands of Afghans. In May, the UN reported, "The sheer magnitude of the population in need, coupled with limited resources and logistical constraints "have significantly limited the collective ability of the assistance community to reach all those in need before they have no option but to move."

Most of the displaced were not in camps, but living with friends or relatives in Afghanistan's larger towns and cities. A significant number of them, some 354,000 persons, were located in northern Afghanistan, an area that continued to be battered by both conflict and drought. Among them were some 10,000 persons who fled fighting in northern Afghanistan in late 2000 and became stranded on several islands in a river along the Afghan-Tajik border because Tajikistan refused them entry. The Taliban attacked the displaced several times during 2001. UNHCR repeatedly appealed to the Tajik government to permit the group to enter, but the Tajik authorities refused.

In some areas, the Taliban obstructed international relief efforts. In early 2001, it barred aid agencies from assisting residents of the Hazarajat region, despite the presence of some 60,000 displaced persons in the area. Elsewhere, fighting and lawlessness disrupted relief efforts. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was forced to halt relief operations in Ghor province because of fighting and attacks by armed groups in the region.

Although the Taliban permitted and profited greatly from the cultivation of poppy (used to make heroin) in the late 1990s, it banned poppy cultivation in July 2000. That ban, while welcomed by the international community, contributed to displacement in 2001, particularly in southern and eastern Afghanistan. The Taliban imposed the ban without providing any viable economic alternatives to the tens or hundreds of thousands of farmers who grew poppy. Many landless laborers dependent on work in the poppy fields lost their only source of income and had little choice but to migrate to camps for internally displaced persons, or to Pakistan. In May 2001, the U.S. State Department, which supported the ban, announced that it would allocate an additional $43 million in aid to Afghans, in part to assist farmers who had stopped growing poppy.

On September 6, noting that more than 5.5 million Afghans were dependent on food aid and that in some areas people were "surviving on eating grass, locusts, and bread crumbs," WFP appealed for an additional $151 million to "avert the threat of starvation."

By September 11, 2001, an estimated one million Afghans were internally displaced, as many as 600,000 of whom had become newly displaced in 2001.

Other Developments before September 11

In January 2001, after the Taliban captured Yakaolang, in Bamyan province, Taliban forces massacred as many as 300 ethnic Hazara men and boys, including many civilians.

During the year, the Taliban sought to extend its restrictions on behavior to staff of international organizations working in Afghanistan. In May, an international NGO had to close a hospital after several Taliban physically abused hospital staff because male and female staff members had eaten together. That same month, the UN Coordinator for Afghanistan complained that the Taliban had "arrested, harassed, and even physically abused" UN personnel.

Concern grew among NGO workers in Afghanistan in early August 2001, when the Taliban arrested eight expatriate and 24 local staff of an international aid group. The Taliban accused the foreigners of proselytizing, a crime punishable by death. A UN spokesperson called the arrests "a major concern" and part of a Taliban "pattern" of creating difficulties for foreign aid workers. (The Taliban released the expatriate NGO staff in November, after U.S. and opposition forces dislodged the Taliban government from Kabul.)

Developments after September 11

Within days of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, the U.S. government accused Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda organization of responsibility for the attacks and demanded that the Taliban turn bin Laden over to the United States. When the Taliban refused, U.S. armed forces launched a military campaign in Afghanistan on October 6 aimed at rooting out Al Qaeda members and removing the Taliban from power.

Even before U.S. air strikes began, thousands of Afghan civilians began fleeing Kabul and other cities likely to be targeted by U.S. and allied forces. Since all of Afghanistan's neighbors kept their borders closed and refused to permit fleeing Afghans to enter, a large majority became internally displaced.

All international UN and NGO personnel working in Afghanistan, including relief personnel, left Afghanistan between September 11 and October 6, many moving to their organizations' offices in Pakistan. After U.S. air strikes began, the Taliban prohibited all communication between Afghan UN and NGO staff and their departed expatriate colleagues. The departure of expatriate staff, the ban on communications, and the start of U.S. military strikes seriously curtailed relief activities that even before September 11 were insufficient to reach the more than six million Afghans who were partially or wholly dependent on food aid. One report found that conditions inside Afghanistan "deteriorated dramatically" between September 11 and early October.

Once the U.S. military action began, hundreds of thousands more Afghans fled their homes, including an estimated 40 to 70 percent of the residents of Afghanistan's larger cities. In early November, at the height of the United States' and Afghan opposition forces' military campaign in northern Afghanistan, some 500,000 displaced people were in the area around Mazar-e-Sharif, the largest city in the region.

Although Pakistan kept its border closed, about 160,000 Afghans managed to enter Pakistan between September 11 and the end of the year. Most bribed smugglers to take them into the country over remote mountain passes. However, Pakistani authorities in Baluchistan permitted several thousand Afghans, mostly vulnerable people, to enter. Newly arrived Afghan refugees whom USCR interviewed in Pakistan in late November said that they had fled primarily because of the U.S. bombing; several said that the aerial attacks had claimed the lives of family members.

In order to prevent thousands of Afghans from entering Iran, the Iranian authorities, with the help of the Iranian Red Crescent, established two camps just inside the Afghan border. Some 11,000 Afghans took refuge at the two camps, Makaki and Mile-46, where conditions were said to be grossly inadequate. Armed elements were reportedly present in the camps, and fighting between Taliban and opposition supporters broke out in Makaki in November, as Taliban control collapsed in western Afghanistan.

The start of the U.S. military campaign complicated relief efforts. Some truck drivers refused to deliver aid goods, fearing the U.S. bombing, increased fighting between Taliban and opposition forces, and the looting and lawlessness that spread as the Taliban's hold on power weakened. Nevertheless, the WFP continued to try to deliver additional food into the country before the onset of winter, while many local relief staff continued their organizations' operations even under extreme and uncertain conditions.

Relief efforts were further hampered by the Taliban's seizure of two UN food warehouses, looting by Taliban and armed gangs, and the United States' reportedly accidental bombing, twice, of ICRC food warehouses.

Although U.S. military airplanes dropped large numbers of food aid packets over Afghanistan during the military action, many relief groups considered the move primarily a public-relations exercise, since the amounts of food air-dropped were insignificant compared to the scale of the need, and were sometimes not usable by local people. The United States, already the largest provider of humanitarian assistance to Afghan civilians, pledged an additional $320 million to UN and NGO relief efforts for Afghan civilians and refugees.

U.S. military air strikes and Afghan opposition forces' ground offensives succeeded in ousting the Taliban from most of northern and western Afghanistan by mid-November. Mazar-e-Sharif fell to opposition forces on November 9; Taloqan, in northeastern Afghanistan, fell on November 11, and western Afghanistan's main city, Herat, fell on November 13. Also on November 13, almost all Taliban forces and government officials abandoned Kabul and headed south.

Initially, the Taliban's collapse in northern Afghanistan left what one group labeled a "vacuum of power" that opened the way for banditry by armed groups of all persuasions (e.g. former Taliban, opposition fighters, and common criminals). Many areas became too unsafe even for Afghan relief personnel to operate. UN staff that had returned to Mazar-e-Sharif after its fall to opposition forces again evacuated the city because of "sporadic fighting and shooting."

In late November, as the fighting shifted to southern Afghanistan, representatives of Afghan opposition groups met in Berlin under UN auspices and agreed to form a multiethnic interim government. At the same time, the UN, the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank sponsored a conference in Islamabad to map out a strategy for the reconstruction of a post-Taliban Afghanistan. The international community agreed to send some peacekeeping forces, initially to guarantee the safety of the new government and of relief efforts.

Despite ongoing security problems, tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of displaced persons and tens of thousands of refugees in Pakistan and Iran returned to their homes in northern and western Afghanistan, encouraged by the collapse of the Taliban, the end to the U.S. bombing, and the promise of improved security and assistance. However, even as they returned, tens of thousands of other Afghans were fleeing the southern city of Kandahar (home of Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader), which had become the new target of the U.S. military's and Afghan opposition forces' war effort.

Most of those who fled Kandahar remained displaced in nearby towns and villages or in the mountains of southern Afghanistan, but many also tried to flee to Baluchistan, in Pakistan. Since the Pakistani authorities only permitted limited numbers of vulnerable refugees to enter, tens of thousands of others became stranded in makeshift camps near Spin Boldak, close to the Pakistani border. An Islamic relief group provided some assistance, but conditions were reportedly poor.

At year's end, despite continued fighting in areas of southern Afghanistan, a new Afghan government was in place in Kabul. The first international peacekeeping troops had arrived in the country, and, according to WFP, the UN agency had managed to deliver as much food into Afghanistan as was needed (an assertion that many NGOs questioned). Nevertheless, food shortages continued in areas that remained cut off by snow or where poor security prevented food distribution.

It was difficult to estimate how many Afghans remained internally displaced at year's end. However, USCR believed the number to be in the area of 1 million people.

USCR Response

USCR visited Afghanistan in January 2001 to investigate conditions for recently displaced Afghans and returnees from Iran. Following its visit, USCR mounted an advocacy effort that contributed to the U.S. government's decision to increase substantially humanitarian aid to Afghan refugees and displaced people. USCR also visited Pakistan in June and November 2001 to assess Pakistan's treatment of Afghan refugees.

USCR issued recommendations aimed at improving conditions for Afghan refugees and displaced persons following each of its three visits to the region during the year. These included calls on countries neighboring Afghanistan to admit and protect Afghan refugees and facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan, and on the international community to provide adequate assistance to Afghans at risk. USCR disseminated its recommendations through meetings with U.S. and Pakistani government officials, letters to the U.S. and other governments, press releases, and private and public briefings.


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