Afghanistan's Refugee Crisis
by Hiram Ruiz , Margaret Emery | published September 24, 2001 Over the last two weeks, an estimated 15,000 Afghan refugees have fled to Pakistan, and hundreds of thousands more are reportedly on the move within Afghanistan. This latest flight of Afghans from their homes deepens a humanitarian crisis that has troubled the region for more than 20 years. Already, some 2 million Afghan refugees are living in Pakistan and more than 1.4 million in Iran, with an estimated 30,000 in India, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and other countries. Additionally, some 900,000 people are displaced from their homes within Afghanistan. If and when the United States and its allies launch a military campaign against Afghanistan, UN officials estimate that the number of new refugees and displaced could climb past 1 million. From a humanitarian perspective, the recent terrorist attacks and subsequent US threat of military action against Afghanistan could not have come at a worse moment. Even before the current refugee movement, the Pakistani and Iranian governments were showing impatience with the large, intractable refugee populations in their countries. Tajikistan shut its doors to Afghan asylum seekers and drought victims. International aid began to dwindle nearly a decade ago, as "donor fatigue" set in after the Cold War. Although some long-time refugees have been integrated into their host countries, living in cities and working stable jobs, more recent arrivals have been forced to live in squalid conditions, without access to adequate food, water, shelter and sanitation. The recent withdrawal of UN international aid staff and other humanitarian groups from Afghanistan means that more Afghans, lacking desperately needed assistance, will migrate to Pakistan and Iran in search of food and medical care. Some governments, including the US, have already pledged new aid to the refugee effort. But with Pakistan, Iran and four other nations closing their borders to refugees, the situation inside Afghanistan could become catastrophic. Two Decades of Misery
The Afghan refugee crisis dates back more than 23 years. Since 1978, as many as a third of Afghanistan's 26 million inhabitants have been forced to flee their homes, temporarily or permanently. The first wave of Afghan refugees came in April of that year, when the country's new communist regime introduced a massive agricultural reform program that the rural population deeply resented and resisted. In December 1979, the Soviet Union, concerned that the communist government in Kabul was losing ground, occupied Afghanistan and installed a puppet regime. After the occupying forces unleashed a wave of terror on the civilian population, hundreds of thousands of refugees poured out of Afghanistan. Within two years of the invasion, some 1.5 million Afghans were refugees, mostly in Pakistan. By 1986, the number of Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran had grown to nearly 5 million. The US and other Western countries were by now supporting the Islamist resistance movement known as the mujahideen in their struggle against the Soviet-led government. At the same time, the West poured money into the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan, many of which served as bases for the mujahideen. The international community did not provide similar assistance to Afghan refugees in Iran, where the 1979 revolution had put an anti-Western regime in power. In the decade after the revolution, Iran did not actively seek aid from the international community, although the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) consistently kept a presence, albeit a poorly funded one, in the country. When the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989, they left in power another communist regime, which the mujahideen defeated in April 1992. Afghan refugees welcomed the mujahideen victory, and over the course of 1992 more than 1.4 million refugees returned home. But far from bringing peace to...
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