Blog post written by Mohammad Qasim, lecturer at faculty of law and political science, Gharjistan University, Kabul, Afghanistan
Nearly four decades of war and violent conflict in Afghanistan played as a major role in forcibly displacing people both internally (as Internally Displaced Persons – IDPs) and externally (as refugees and asylum seekers). Afghanistan has also witnessed large-scale repatriation since 2002 under the name of peace-building and post-conflict reconstruction. In most of the cases, it can be argued that repatriation was not voluntarily.
There have been waves of forced displacement from Afghanistan since the communist coup of 1978. The Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 followed by the civil war, left over 6 million Afghanistani refugees, most of whom fled to the neighboring countries of Iran and Pakistan during and in the late 1990s. This figure constituted nearly a quarter of the entire Afghanistan population and the largest refugee population in the world at the time. The subsequent emergence of the Taliban (an Islamic Fundamentalist regime) from 1994 – 2001, caused another outflow of forced migration from the country. The Taliban era is well known for its gross human rights abuses against all Afghanistanis, but particularly against Hazara people. Both ethnically and religiously different from the Taliban, Hazaras were subject to large scale human rights violation. The two massacres committed by Taliban forces in central highlands of Afghanistan, also known as Hazarajat in the years 2000 and 2001, demonstrate their hostility against Hazara people.
The post-Taliban era (2002 onwards) is characterized by a focus on peace-building and reconstruction of the country, however, many Afghanistanis are not experiencing a meaningful peace. The presence of terrorist groups in various parts of Afghanistan imposes severe restrictions to people’s daily life; from preventing them in accessing education and work, to being subject to persecution and even ending their life in explosions. In 2018, a series of bombing education centers, mosques and sport centers in west of Kabul, Dasht-e-Barchi, left hundreds dead and wounded.
Despite 18 years of the international community’s efforts to bring peace and stability, Afghanistan is still one of the most dangerous countries in the world. According to the Global Peace Index 2019 report, Afghanistan replaced Syria as the least peaceful country in the world in 2019. Armed conflict in different parts of Afghanistan continue to occur and cause significant harm to the civilian population, killing and forcibly displacing families from their homes. The United Nations Assistant Mission in Afghanistan documented 3,812 civilian casualties (1,366 deaths and 2,446 injured) in the first half of 2019 only. Insurgency and violence continues to take place frequently, forcing people to leave their habitual residence and look for shelter elsewhere. In 2018, the Taliban violent attacks on Malistan and Jaghori districts of central Ghazni province destroyed 3,000 homes and uprooted over 7,000 civilians from their homes. In four decades, forced migration has remained an integral part of most Afghanistanis life. At least, one in every four people has experienced forced displacement in Afghanistan. One thing that the country is famous for, is protracted forced migration. There were 2.5 million registered refugees from Afghanistan in 2018. They comprise the largest refugee population in Asia, and the second largest refugee population in the world.
What all these figures tell us is that there still exists situations in Afghanistan causing people to flee their homes, abandon their habitual residence, loved ones, their jobs and their memories behind to stay alive. To fulfil their very basic right (the right to life), these people unable to find protection from their home state, have no option rather than to cross an international border and seek support from international community. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the international community established the global refugee regime in order to provide protection to those forced to flee their home countries due to persecution either by state or non – state actors. The 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees is the cornerstone of the international refugee regime, and the UNHCR is the main UN agency facilitating its implementation internationally. The UNHCR is mandated to find durable solutions (resettlement, integration and repatriation) to the problem of refugees.
As discussed above, considering the security situation in Afghanistan, it is hard to justify that repatriation of Afghanistani refugees could be the best durable solution. I argue that returning of Afghanistani refugees to Afghanistan, is neither voluntary, nor in their best interest. Repatriation must be voluntarily and based on protecting human rights of refugee population. If that is not the case, then the international community bear the responsibility to look for the two remaining durable solutions; integration or resettlement in the second or third countries. Over 5 million refugees have returned to Afghanistan since 2002, and UNHCR often portrays Afghanistan as a positive example of refugee repatriation. In reality, however, the return of Afghanistani refugees may prove to be immature. While in the right circumstances, the return of refugees can contribute to peace-building and post-conflict reconstruction, and it can be preferred durable solution for refugees too, those circumstances cannot be said to currently exist in Afghanistan. Along with widespread insecurity threatening the life and human rights of returnees, lack of employment opportunities makes the reintegration process more difficult. Finding jobs is crucial for returnees to be reintegrated successfully. Research reports indicate that many refugees returned to Afghanistan are struggling to survive or have re-migrated to Iran and Pakistan in search of security and labor once they found no safety and economic opportunity in Afghanistan. The absence of safety and lack of job opportunities may also encourage returnees to join insurgent groups. The government in Afghanistan is unable and unwilling to provide protection or livelihood means to the returnees. Over 54 percent of Afghanistan people live below poverty line, and nearly 40 percent are unemployed. Furthermore, the presence of more than 2.6 million Internally Displaced Persons due to violent conflicts, demonstrates the severity of insecurity in Afghanistan.
Keeping all of this in mind, I argue that repatriation of Afghanistani refugees is not a durable solution for their problems. In most cases, the refugees are forced to return from Iran, Pakistan and Europe. The largest refugee repatriation of Afghanistanis since 2002 was due to a number of states legitimizing the claim of the Afghanistan government in classifying Afghanistan as a safe and secure country. Furthermore, there has been ongoing political pressure from countries hosting Afghanistani refugees for them to repatriate. Returning refugees against their will constitutes violation of International Refugee Law. Non-refoulement is the fundamental principle of 1951 Refugee Convention, and it prohibits states from returning a person to any place where his/her life and safety are in danger. Doing so means violation of international responsibility. The principle is now recognized as a part of international customary law as well, which means is enforceable on all states regardless of their membership to the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Offering protection to the people forced to flee their homes for the sake of staying alive is both moral and legal obligation of states. Returning them back to danger and persecution does not serve the interest of international community. Forced migration is a global problem and it requires global solutions. Claims that refugees impose security threats and economic burdens on host communities have been proven inaccurate. Substantial research shows that hosting refugeesin fact boosts a country’s economy if they are given proper opportunities for integration. It is true that not every refugee is Einstein, but majority of them are tax payers, entrepreneurs, skilled, and hard workers. Iran, Pakistan, Europe, and other countries can benefit from hosting refugees if they are given their rights and freedoms.
In conclusion, in my view, returning refugees and asylum seekers to Afghanistan may amount to refoulement, as the current situation in the country significantly threatens returnees’ life and human security. States currently hosting refugees from Afghanistan are under an international legal obligation not to return refugees to unsafe situations in Afghanistan. Doing so may not only violate international law, but also harm states’ international reputation. In addition, the government of Afghanistan is unable to provide opportunities that result into successful reintegration of returnees. Therefore, giving refugees the chance to be integrated in the local communities of host states is both in the interests of the states and also to the refugees. It is a win–win game.
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