Issue 19 - Article 6

Refugees from Afghanistan: protection and the role of civil society

June 3, 2003
Peter Marsden
10 min read

Whether in Asia or Europe, Afghan refugees face increased hostility, violence and stigmatisation. These refugees have acute protection needs – needs which civil society must do more to meet.

Today, Afghans account for 2.6 million of the world’s 21.1m refugees – around ten per cent of the total, and the second-largest refugee population after the Palestinians. The flight of refugees from Afghanistan began with the Soviet occupation in 1979, and has continued with civil war and Taliban rule. The vast majority are in neighbouring Iran and Pakistan (an estimated 2m in each country), but Europe in particular has seen a steep increase in arrivals in the past four years, mostly in Germany, the Netherlands and the UK. Asylum applications increased particularly significantly after the US air strikes in August 1998, and following the imposition of UN sanctions in 1999 and December 2000.

Refugee conditions

Over 6m refugees left Afghanistan for Pakistan and Iran during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. The 3.2m in Pakistan were mostly housed in refugee camps along the Afghan border, and provided with rations and access to basic services. Over time, they built their own housing, and many were able to enter local labour markets or develop businesses. Donors responded by gradually withdrawing aid and, by 1995, food provision had ended for all but identified vulnerable groups.

New waves of refugees arriving in Pakistan since the collapse of the Soviet-backed government in 1992 have received short-term support, before being left to fend for themselves like their predecessors. A study of livelihood strategies in December 1996 found that the vast majority faced enormous difficulties, with most dependent on intermittent day-labouring. Those who were too old or disabled to work depended on the charity of other refugees. In January 2001, the Pakistani government announced that it would no longer allow the registration of new refugees, thereby preventing the provision of tents, food and other forms of support. Since the beginning of August, the Pakistan government and UNHCR have embarked on a new screening programme aimed at differentiating between economic migrants and asylum-seekers. Islamabad has also started forcibly returning refugees to Afghanistan. The risk of abuse is heightened by the fact that a significant proportion of the refugee population lacks the appropriate documentation.

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The 2.9m Afghans who fled to Iran during the Soviet occupation were largely absorbed into Iranian society, with permission to work, albeit in menial jobs, and access to state services and benefits. However, a strict new law forbidding employers to use foreign labour has deprived thousands of Afghans of work, and has unleashed violence against them. The government has become frustrated with the continued presence of Afghan refugees, and has been forcibly returning them to Afghanistan. UNHCR has been powerless to contain this, despite an agreement with the Iranian government aimed at a more orderly return.

The five countries bordering Afghanistan – Turkmenistan, Uzebekistan, Pakistan, Iran and Tajikistan – have closed their frontiers to refugees from Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Afghans seeking asylum in Europe face what UNHCR has termed ‘an ever-growing barricade of exclusionary measures designed to keep them out’. In addition to legal and bureaucratic challenges, refugees also face public and media hostility towards asylum-seekers, and find themselves stigmatised as ‘bogus’ refugees seeking economic advantage.

Afghan refugees are thus increasingly unprotected as economic pressures lead to demands from the public in Pakistan, Iran, Europe and elsewhere for their return, and for strong measures to prevent new influxes. Meanwhile, the conditions that fuel the refugee flows persist. Escalating conflict, a serious drought and high levels of human-rights abuse are leaving people in many parts of Afghan-istan with no option but to flee their homes. Large numbers are taking refuge in cities (there are about 300,000 internally-displaced people in Afghanistan), but employment opportunities are limited and wages low. Families are therefore opting to send their sons to Pakistan or Iran in the hope of securing an income. Young men are also leaving for fear of being forcibly recruited by either the Taliban or the opposition, while Tajiks are being displaced by fighting in the north-east. Intellectuals and ethnic minorities also fear persecution. The efforts of European governments to seek regional solutions by asking Pakistan and Iran to take on a greater burden are, therefore, particularly inopportune.

Refugee protection

The primary protection needs of the refugees are:

  • protection from refoulement (return to an insecure situation in which the returnee feels unprotected);
  • protection from abuse within the country of asylum; and
  • protection from abuse upon return to the country of origin, or to a previous country of asylum.

In the absence of serious efforts by governments to ensure the protection of Afghan refugees, this function falls increasingly to civil-society structures. These include:

  • indigenous social structures – tribes, sub-tribes, consultative, decision-making and conflict-resolution bodies such as jirgas and shuras, and the family;
  • informal bodies established to protect the collective interests of their members against identified threats;
  • indigenous and international NGOs con-cerned with public welfare, human rights, culture and heritage; and
  • lawyers representing applicants for asylum.

Indigenous structures

In general, refugees are relatively powerless to protect themselves or represent their interests to those with the power to grant or refuse asylum and deport asylum-seekers. Refugees from areas of Afghanistan where social structures are relatively weak have found themselves very isolated as individual nuclear families in the face of the authorities in Iran, and unable to influence policy and practice concerning their presence. The same has been true for refugees from Kabul and from the north-east.

In contrast, refugees from the Pushtun tribes have been in a better position to protect themselves from abuse, and to negotiate arrangements they regard as satisfactory. Pushtun tribes in Afghanistan have links with their powerful counterparts in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province, and could also threaten the Taliban’s hold on Afghanistan if it is seen as too readily disregarding their interests. Members of powerful tribes may thus be able to secure some protection, both against being deported from Pakistan, and against forced recruitment into Taliban forces.

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Relief and development NGOs

NGOs engage with refugees in two main ways: by providing services to those living in camps or refugee neighbourhoods; and by helping returning refugees to re-establish their lives through programmes providing agricultural rehabilitation, health care, water supplies, education and rural infrastructure.

Organisations providing services to refugees in countries of asylum may become aware of abuse such as forced deportation, but do not usually have the power to negotiate or otherwise influence the policies and practices of the governments of these countries. They also have to be careful not to criticise governments which have the power to withdraw their registration, or deny visas to their staff. At best, international NGOs can alert their own governments. Indigenous NGOs – particularly Afghan organisations operating in Pakistan – are in a weaker position than their international counterparts. NGOs operating under contract to UNHCR are also constrained by the policy framework within which their funding is provided.

NGOs working on reconstruction programmes potentially have more power to influence governments. If, based on their knowledge of the situation in the country, they judge that conditions are not conducive to the return of refugees in security, they can argue that resources should not be given in support of a return programme. However, they are powerless regarding forcible returns except to the extent that they can influence their own governments, and these governments are disposed to take the matter seriously.

Human-rights organisations

By reporting the abuse of asylum by governments, and the abuse of returning refugees by the authorities in the countries of origin, human-rights organisations can embarrass ‘responsible’ capitals, and so have perhaps greater power than other NGOs. However, their reports may prove counter-productive in situations where the authorities are prepared to disregard international opinion, and in which external pressure simply hardens attitudes, as has been the case with the Taliban.

Even where human-rights organisations are able to influence governments, their response may not always be appropriate to the context. There is thus a strong case for governments to work more closely with UNHCR to strengthen the representations that it makes to governments on protection matters. Human-rights organisations also have an important role in providing information to governments assessing claims for asylum in Europe, North America and Australia, and to lawyers acting on behalf of asylum-seekers.


Where governments are party to international conventions or have domestic legislation which provides certain levels of protection, lawyers are in a good position to protect individual refugees and, through case law, wider groups. For example, lawyers working for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan have established that the Pakistani Citizenship Act of 1951 provides that Afghans born in Pakistan are entitled to citizenship, and so cannot be deported. There are, however, indications that the Pakistan government may take legal steps to close this loophole.

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Like UNHCR, civil society is relatively powerless to withstand regional attempts to minimise the number of asylum-seekers, and to secure the return of as many refugees as possible. With the exception of those linked with the Pushtun tribes, civil society can at best try to inform more powerful governments in the international community in the hope that they will use their power in support of refugee protection. Inter-national NGOs can use a number of strategies to urge their own governments to take greater responsibility for displaced Afghans.

NGOs can ask their governments to support them in seeking to maintain people in their homes through agriculture, health, education, water-supply and education programmes, while recognising that the conflict and other aspects of the operating environment may significantly constrain their access, and that many people will have no option but to flee their homes. They can also request support in providing basic services to people living in camps in Afghanistan, and in refugee camps and neighbourhoods in Pakistan and Iran, while recognising that, even if sufficient resources are provided, these people may still suffer abuse, or be at risk of refoulement.

NGOs can also call on their governments to urge Islamabad and Tehran to comply with the terms of the 1951 Refugee Convention, and in addition provide refuge on humanitarian grounds. Diplomatic contact should be used to raise UNHCR’s protection concerns. Western governments should ensure that UNHCR’s protection role is sufficiently resourced. Too often, its attention is taken up with care and maintenance issues, and Protection Officers find themselves under-resourced in relation to the level of abuse. With regard to Afghanistan itself, NGOs need to press their governments to pursue a policy of constructive engagement with the Taliban, recognising that the denunciatory approach often adopted by the international community has been counter-productive in that it has further isolated the Taliban and strengthened its hardliners, to the detriment both of the population and of the operating conditions of humanitarian agencies.

NGOs also need to remind their governments of their responsibilities. European governments must share the burden by accepting displaced Afghans in need of protection under the terms of the Convention, or on humanitarian grounds. Afghans should thus be allowed to enter European countries by legal means, and should be treated with dignity on their arrival. European governments should be urged to abandon their hostile rhetoric on asylum-seekers, and present them instead as people deserving of public sympathy. They should also be encouraged to abandon their attempts to persuade Pakistan and Iran to accept rejected Afghan asylum-seekers from Europe.

Peter Marsden is Information Coordinator of the British Agencies Afghanistan Group (BAAG) at the Refugee Council. He has written extensively on Afghanistan.


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