he United States reached unprecedented progress in its seventh round of negotiations with the Taliban in Qatar, from the end of June to the beginning of July. In addition to efforts focused on securing a “roadmap for peace” and the United States’ departure from its longest war, Taliban representatives and delegates from the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan met in a separate round of “intra-Afghan” meetings and successfully brokered a rare cease-fire. As officials wrapped up discussions and prepared prospective offers for their superiors, U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad proclaimed the meetings to be “the most productive of the rounds we have had with the Talibs.” However, even in the midst of promising dialogues and improved relations between the Taliban and the United States, the dangers of forced return for Afghan refugees would diminish any progress brought forth by the current round of talks. Afghanistan remains far from peaceful and its people far from secure.
This year, Afghanistan replaced Syria as the least peaceful country in the world in a ranking from the Institute for Economics and Peace. Additionally, in 2018, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan reported 3,804 civilian deaths, 927 of whom were children—a record high since it began recording casualties ten years earlier. Out of the decade’s total 10,993 deaths, 37 percent were attributed to the Taliban and 24 percent to pro-government forces. Only several days earlier, on July 29, the running mate of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was the target of a suicide bombing that killed twenty people hours after the announcement of their election campaign.
This violent reality has led to more than 2.7 million Afghans around the world registered as refugees, most of whom are settled in the neighboring Islamic Republics of Iran and Pakistan. This figure is second only to the number of Syrian refugees, and does not account for undocumented refugees and the approximately 3.7 million refugees displaced within the country.
Pakistan hosts 1.5 million registered and one million unregistered Afghan refugees, down from approximately four million in past decades. As Pakistan is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention, Afghans cannot apply for citizenship and are forced to rely on Proof of Registration (PoR) cards, the expiration of which is grounds for deportation. Consequently, they are segregated from society and barred from attending public schools, working, buying land, or accessing healthcare. Afghans concentrated in westward areas along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, such as Quetta, share with Pakistanis the common tongue of Pashto, but those who reside outside of the state of Balochistan are further isolated because of language barriers.
Children Play at Sosmaqala IDP Camp in Afghanistan. The camp is comprised of returned Afghans following many years as refugees in neighboring Iran. UN Photo/Erik Kanalstein.
Iran, though a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention, does not recognize the nearly three million Afghans living in the country as refugees. The fear of deportation looms constantly over generations of refugees. Many Afghans, ineligible for birthright citizenship, cannot afford the $12 fee for registration cards. Moreover, similar to those in Pakistan, millions of Afghans in Iran who consequently live in isolation face discrimination in their daily lives in finding work, obtaining healthcare, and education.
The number of Afghans in diaspora has decreased as roughly 4.4 million have returned to Afghanistan since 2002. More than 2.3 million Afghans have returned from Pakistan since the beginning of 2015 alone, under UNHCR-facilitated voluntary repatriation programs. A smaller but sizeable group of 462,000 Afghans moved from Iran back to Afghanistan in 2017. Between 2015 and 2016, EU statistics reported that the number of deportations of Afghans by European countries doubled from 3,290 to 9,460 and the recognition of asylum-applications decreased from 68 to 33 percent.
The high rates at which Afghans are returning place stress on the country’s tenuous infrastructure, as the government and the Taliban continue to wage war. Though the education rate of refugee children is 40 percent in Pakistan and 80 percent in Iran; Afghanistan’s literacy rate of 31 percent is the lowest in Asia, skews towards those living in urban centers, and does not take into consideration gender parity. In 2019, the amount of children out of school reached levels not seen since 2002. Of the 600,000 Afghans who were deported from Pakistan in 2016, 81 percent were women, and they often received as much reintegration assistance for their entire families as one individual. Many mothers fear the lack of access to healthcare or education and the possibility of their children being recruited as child soldiers will make escaping poverty impossible.
Relief supplies waiting for delivery. At the time this photograph was taken, the border with Afghanistan was still closed and the Taliban were still in power in Kandahar. Though a few flights were operating, food supplies in Quetta were not moving out in large amount and stockpiles were growing. Some grain was being moved to the refugees in the camps at the border. UN Photo/Luke Powell.
Groups such as the Human Rights Watch (HRW) have accused the government of Iran of perpetrating severe abuse against Afghans to incentivize their departures, to the point that Afghans in Iran would “volunteer” to fight in Syria. In a separate report, the HRW criticized the UNHCR for being complicit in the coerced deportation of Afghans from Pakistan to Afghanistan: “...many of those returning were primarily fleeing police abuses and fear of deportation and that Pakistan’s actions were unlawful.”
The fact remains that both the Taliban and pro-government insurgents continue to perpetrate violence in the streets, force clinics to remain closed for days on end, and seek victory for one group over a larger peace settlement. Should the peace talks succeed in quelling some of the tensions between the Taliban and the Afghan government, the first response should not be to return the refugees. Ambassador Khalilzad promised that these rounds of talks are not a sign of the United States “cutting and running,” and reaffirmed that it is “looking for a peace agreement” inclusive of refugees.
The Taliban will capitalize on a withdrawal of American forces as an opportunity to extend its rural influence to urban centers, effectively undermining the Afghan government and any chance of creating a multilateral infrastructure system for the right to return. Countries that currently host refugees need to reform registration systems to better integrate Afghans, in terms of language barriers and access to education and healthcare, rather than force them into the shadows. Refugees cannot be forgotten in the larger conversation of peace in Afghanistan. Nor should they continue to languish in despair, sidelined to the society of their host nation.