At the end of 2003, some 2.5 million Afghans were living as refugees in other countries, including over 1.2 million in Pakistan, 1.1 million in Iran and some 50,000 in India. Over 612,600 refugees returned to Afghanistan in 2003 mostly from Pakistan (343,100) and Iran (269,400), only about one-third of the 1.8 million who returned in 2002 – although some others returned spontaneously may not have been noted. In addition, Iranian officials deported some 16,000 Afghans and Pakistani officials deported at least 437 to Afghanistan.

Some 14,500 Afghans applied for asylum in Europe, North America, and Oceania during the year: the largest numbers were in the United Kingdom (3,000), Austria (2,400) and Norway (2,100).

Some 82,000 internally displaced persons return to their homes during the year. However, in some areas fighting, political repression, and ethnic violence caused an unknown number to flee or become re-displaced. An estimated 200,000-300,000 Afghans remained internally displaced at year's end.

New Developments

Afghan representatives, including 24 refugee representatives from Iran and Pakistan, passed a new constitution in early 2004 after December's Loya Jirga, paving the way for elections to be held later in the year. Continued Taliban insurgency stalled progress and reconstruction efforts. The Taliban killed and kidnapped westerners and the Afghans who worked with them, including NATO peacekeepers, and planted landmines and other explosives. In November, the Taliban shot and killed a UNHCR worker in Ghazni province, and injured her Afghani driver. The killing prompted UNHCR to temporarily withdraw its international staff from the southern and eastern provinces, as well as reduce the number of its local staff on the ground. In Pakistan, UNHCR suspended repatriations but planned to start again in March 2004. U.S.-led Coalition forces reportedly arrested civilians on faulty intelligence and, in two incidents in December, only a day apart, killed 15 children in bombing raids.

The insurgency made many destitute provinces of Afghanistan off limits to aid workers, hampering return monitoring and reconstruction. Between June and August 2003 there were seven times as many attacks outside Kabul as there were in the city, whereas the ratio was two to one in 2002, according to CARE. NATO peacekeeping forces failed to expand beyond Kabul. Landmines injured or killed around 120-200 persons a month.

Warlords dominated the areas outside Kabul, engaging in illegal taxation – including taking part of returnees' UNHCR assistance money – and forcibly recruiting of civilians. Lack of shelter, land, jobs, education, and health care also deterred many from return.

The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission reported that the government had houses in Kabul to build private homes for senior Afghan officials – including 6 cabinet ministers and the governor of the Afghan national bank – forcing around 20 Afghan families to leave the area. Police reportedly beat residents who refused to leave. The government later fired the police chief in Kabul for excessive use of force. Human rights groups claim that although between 184,000 and 340,000 internally displaced Afghans live in makeshift housing or camps, government officials allocate public land in Afghanistan's largest cities to military commanders.

Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons

Afghanistan, UNHCR, and Pakistan signed a tripartite agreement which lasts until 2005 to ensure that the return of refugees to Afghanistan is voluntary. Representatives of the parties meet every three months to oversee the repatriation and reintegration.

Only about 82,000 internally displaced persons returned home, compared to some 400,000 last year. The UN re-registered displaced persons in 2003, which led to a significant reduction in their earlier figure of 720,000 in 2002, but human rights groups said that the re-registration ignored repeated displacement by those unable to return to their homes. The majority were in Zhare Dasht, Panjwai and other places in the south, Maslkh camp in the west, and camps in the north, with unknown numbers in the cities. Most are ethnic Kutchis, and the other large group is ethnic Pashtuns from the north. Calculating exact numbers of displaced is difficult since the reasons for displacement are multifaceted including unemployment, sometimes caused by warlord nepotism and arbitrary land distribution, illegal taxation, and lack of shelter as well and violence and human rights violations. Tracking secondary displacement is difficult, as insecurity has prevented many NGOS from operating in displacement areas. Médicins sans Frontières (MSF) suspended its activities in Zhare Dasht camp in the south due to security concerns in December. UNHCR scaled back its presence following the murder of one of its staff.

In 2003, the government led by the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation (MORR), along with the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRDD), and the Ministry of Urban Development and Housing (MURD), supported by UNHCR and NGOs issued a National Return, Displacement and Reintegration Strategy aimed solving displacement and assisting and protection displaced persons in the meantime.


This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.