Afghan refugees face unbearable conditions

Afghanistan is bracing for the repatriation of 1.5 million refugees from Pakistan, according to an agreement to be signed in Geneva next month, which was announced Dec. 13. Beginning this spring, 400,000 refugees will be repatriated each year for the next three years.

In July, despite protests, the UN announced that it was supporting campaigns to repatriate and even enforce the repatriation of Afghan refugees worldwide.

John Fifton, from Human Right Watch (HRW), told the World, 'The large scale repatriation of refugees, is not part of a well structured plan, it is just bad policy.'

The Asia Advocacy Director of Amnesty International said, 'It’s horrible in some camps, some [refugee] camps are 20-25 years old,' adding that the situation in the oldest camps has especially deteriorated. HRW reports that refugees repatriated from camps in Iran believe that due to the continuing U.S. bombing campaign their condition would have been better if they had stayed in the camps.

The U.S.-led war has aggravated the refugee crises, already existing from the long-standing civil war. A drought, which has dried some rivers for the first time in a thousand years, agriculture that has almost drawn to a halt, snow and freezing temperatures are also a danger to refugees and aid workers in some regions. Land mines left over from the U.S.-backed struggle of ultra-right forces against the People’s Democratic Party government of the 1980s are a continuing threat. The country has never had peace long enough to build a viable modern infrastructure and U.S. bombing has destroyed much of the infrastructure left.

Thus, even now food aid cannot reach all people because so many don’t have roads through the mountainous regions. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) spokeswomen, Tehmina Faryal believes that 'human rights are trampled over around the world but it is worse in Afghanistan,' citing the extreme corruption and continuing internal conflict. 'Warlords [are] controlling the country, assaults on women continue and the religious tyrants are reasserting themselves,' she told a reporter at a recent protest in Pakistan against enforcing repatriation of Afghan refugees. Two recent HRW reports give evidence of such widespread abuse.

The number of Afghan refugees worldwide exceeds five million people according to United Nations reports; three to four million are in the regions near Afghanistan, most of which are in Pakistan and Iran. Both Pakistan and Iran have tried to completely close their borders in an attempt to dry up the still flowing river of refugees. Thousands of refugees are in Austria and the U.S., while there are at least a half million in Europe. Furthermore, HRW reports that as many as one million people are internally displaced in Afghanistan, many streaming into urban areas for relief from the famine of the countryside.

In November, Afghan officials asked the UN not to rush repatriation efforts in light of the still tenuous state of the country. As pressure on refugees to repatriate grows reports of refugees’ fear for the stability and future of their nation have increased. The recent shootings of university students demonstrating for better conditions, continued corruption and criminality have deterred many refugees from rushing home too quickly.

Also in November, the EU announced it would begin repatriating 1,500 Afghan refugees a month in addition to separate campaigns of other European nations, including Britain, France and Denmark. Austria’s methods of repatriation have been the most controversial, offering asylum seekers tickets back home immediately and threatening forced deportation if refugees don’t repatriate 'voluntarily.' Less than 100 Afghans have accepted the French and Danish offers.

The Bonn agreement signed over a year ago has not yet been fully implemented. Last year Afghanistan officials asked for $1.6 billion for reconstruction, but never got more than $1 billion. This year they will only be appealing for $815 million according to the UN’s Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan, Nigel Fisher. The appeal will be announced this week in Oslo. Activists, human rights workers and the Afghan people hope that this time the country might get the help it needs.

The author can be reached at bkishner@pww.org