Afghan Refugee Crisis: Impact on Iran and Pakistan

Afghan Refugee Crisis: Impact on Iran and Pakistan

Author: Savi Rajput
I Year | Government New Law College, Indore


Migration has become a daily concept in the history of Afghanistan. Internal dislocation among families during conflicts and tribal feuds has been a major reason for migration. Initially, at the start of the 1960s, rural to urban migration became predominant in and around Afghanistan.  The necessity for development and better living standards forced locals to migrate internally and externally. Over the years, ethnic groups like the Hazaras crossed into Pakistan for trade and transit. Large scale labour migration to Iran also resulted in an exchange of ethnic, religious, and cultural trends.

Post-1970s, with the Saur Revolution and entry of the Soviets into Afghanistan, seasonal migration turned into the world’s largest population displacement. Yet after the 2001 US war on terrorism, Afghan refugees were helped in all possible ways to return to their homeland. However, in contemporary times, there has been a mass movement of Afghan refugees in search of safe haven due to the Taliban war.

The prevailing challenges in Afghanistan demotivated the Afghan migrants to return and face an unsteady future. This led to a massive strain on neighbouring countries like Iran and Pakistan. The neighbouring countries still host a large population of Afghan refugees in their territory.

Migration and Refugees:

Migration is the movement of people far away from their place of usual residence, either across a world border or within a State. Most elements of international migration law have come to hide areas such as the duty of states to simply accept returning residents, human rights, human trafficking, and migrant smuggling, and hence it is important to supply consular access to non-residents[1]. In this context, refugee law as a study remains a separate part of the law of nations that deals with customary law, norms, and legal instruments.

The United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees defines a refugee within the context of the law of nations as an individual who, due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a specific group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or, due to such fear, is unwilling, to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, due to such fear, is unwilling, to return thereto[2].

There are 146 signatories to the Convention which has been ratified by all under the 1967 Protocol. All States signatory must necessarily abide by the Convention. They need to cooperate with the UNHCR in reference to external and internal refugees. The States cannot punish refugees who are escaping persecution, more so if they’re ready to provide details to the state authorities. They are protected under the refugees’ right to be protected against forcible return.

The Afghan Refugees:

War and Afghanistan have sadly become synonymous to each other. For years, Afghan refugees have been displaced due to fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, armed conflict, and political opinion. Within the last ten years, around 5.7 million refugees have voluntarily repatriated to Afghanistan. Despite this, 2.7 million Afghans still sleep in exile in neighbouring countries with the number of refugees returning being recorded as low since 2011[3]

Phases of the Afghan Refugee crisis:

The unrest began after the military coup in 1978 against the Daoud government. It was organised by the Afghan Marxist political group, called the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan. With increasing tensions within the region, the Soviet Union entered Afghanistan in 1979. Their presence caught the attention of the US, and its allies to project the invasion as a threat to the steadiness of the region. They offered financial and military support to the Afghan fighters, the Mujahideen, to assist remove the Soviets from the country. The war in Afghanistan created large scale instability within the region. This forced the Afghans to migrate to neighbouring countries like Pakistan and Iran.

The spread of violence throughout the country, along with the changes in social practices, and marriage customs alongside the changing leadership, forced many to abandon their homeland [4]. The bulk of them who moved were Pashtuns who were peasants, farmers, small landowners, and clergy.

The next mass migration occurred simultaneous to the withdrawal of the Soviet troops, beginning in 1986 and lasting till 1989. The withdrawal was caused by a rise within the internal power struggle of the Mujahideen groups which, in turn, created two parallel migration movements [5]. Later, with the installation of Najibullah, the United Nations (UN) decided to assist in rebuilding the country. UNHCR started ‘Operation Salam’ for repatriation and reconstruction in war struck Afghanistan. This operation aimed to facilitate the refugees’ successful return to their homeland. They also initiated activities such as mine clearance, health programmes, rehabilitation of essential infrastructure and provision of services like health and education [6]. However, the programme faced logistical issues, with limited UN access to assist in Pakistan and Iran.

Rising tension among Afghan Refugees:

While many Afghan refugees were encouraged to return, others preferred to remain outside, thanks to the growing unrest. A majority of the population that did not return were urban business professionals. The Dari-Persian speaking people were compelled to leave as they were considered Communist supporters by the warlords. Many settled in Nasir Bagh Camp in Pakistan’s Peshawar province [7]. However ethnic, and linguistic differences between the Pashtun and Dari speaking refugees soon gave rise to tensions within the camps. By 1993, the speed of return declined considerably.

Then came the fight for control of Kabul and Kandahar. This resulted in the destruction of the cities and displacement of around 100,000 Kabulis.[8] Many of these were those who had recently returned to Afghanistan, after 13 years in exile. They were once again forced to return to Pakistan or Iran for safety purposes [9].

Current Scenario of Afghan Refugees:

The third phase of Afghan mass migration occurred after the Taliban took power in 1996. During the Taliban era, the Pashtun refugees decided to return in large numbers. However, the introduction of a repressive regime, with political instability and economic challenges, soon led to famine that created widespread food and water shortages throughout the 1990s. This forced many into migrating, mainly religious minorities, and Shia Muslims, who felt threatened under the Wahhabi Taliban regime. Many Afghan refugees migrated to Pakistan and Iran due to the famine and disease spread. Data suggests that around this time, an estimated 2 million Afghan refugees migrated to Pakistan and 1.5 million to Iran. Others migrated to other countries in South Asia, West Asia, North America, and Europe.

The fourth phase of Afghan mass migration happened with the US global war on terrorism in 2001, which increased socio-economic and political instabilities that generated large outflows of Afghan refugees. By 2001, 900,000 Afghans had internally displaced thanks to intense fighting within the region.[10] It’s interesting to notice that even after the ousting of the Taliban in 2001, few refugees returned to Afghanistan. However, the tripartite agreement signed among Pakistan, Afghanistan and UNHCR and similarly with Iran in 2002, facilitated the return of around 1.5 million refugees to Afghanistan.

Afghan refugee in Pakistan:

A vast majority of Afghan families in Pakistan arrived in the first years of the refugee crisis. Also, due to traditional migratory routes, some of the Afghans who were present in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) in Pakistan were second and third generation, Afghan migrants. The Afghan refugees in Pakistan, mainly from southern and eastern Afghanistan, comprised Sunni Pashtuns (82 percent) who found it easier to migrate to places that were housing other Pashtun ethnic communities while other ethnic groups such as Sunni Tajiks (8 percent), Shia Hazaras (2 percent) and Sunni Balochis (1.7 percent) migrated in small numbers.

Afghan refugee in Iran:

Thirty years of war in Afghanistan has left Iran with an outsized urban refugee population within the world.  Around 1.6 million Afghans have returned from Iran since April 2002, but the pace reduced significantly in 2006, with only around 5,000 returning, thanks to a lack of a better standard of living in Afghanistan.[11] In 2007, with increasing security threats within the region, Iran forced the Afghan refugee people to travel back to Afghanistan, separating many families and raising concerns of a humanitarian crisis. Furthermore, a cause of concern arises from Iran’s forcible repatriation of illegal migrants. UNHCR criticized this move heavily.


To sum up, the number of refugees fleeing from Afghanistan has been an upward rising graph. Two distinguishable reasons that emerge from the trend are – political instability and lack of development. A closer look reveals that these factors operate in a cyclical manner. The recent acquisition by Taliban has made things worse and further propelled people to move out to ‘safer’ neighbourhoods. In the end, Afghan refugees, the people who end up being uprooted over and over again, are at the receiving end.

[1] “International Migration Law”, in Essentials of Migration Management (International Organisation for Migration: Geneva, Switzerland), IOM_EMM/v1/V1S06_CM.pdf

[2] “Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees”, http://www.unhcr. org/3b66c2aa10.html

[3] “Afghanistan: What now for Refugees”, Asia Report, no.175, August 2009, www.crisisgroup. org/…/asia/…asia/afghanistan/175_afghanistan___what.

[4] Leila Jazayery, “The Migration–Development Nexus: Afghanistan Case Study”, International Migration, vol. 40, no. 5, pp. 231-254, Special Issue 2, 2002, doi/10.1111/1468-2435.00218/abstract

[5] Ibid.

[6] Rudiger Schoch, “Afghan Refugees in Pakistan During the 1980s: Cold War Politics and Registration Practice “, UNHCR New Issues in Refugee Research, no. 157, 2008, www.unhcr. org/4868daad2.html

[7] Susanne Schmeidl, “Security Dilemmas: Long-term Implications of the Afghan Refugee Crisis”, Third World Quarterly, vol. 23, no.1, pp. 7-29, (2002)

[8] “Afghan Refugees in Pakistan: Push Comes to Shove”, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, April 2009,

[9] Teresa Poppelwell, “Afghanistan”, expert-guides/afghanistan/fmo006.pdf


[11] Mohammad Jalal Abbasi-Shavazi et al, “Return to Afghanistan? A Study of Afghans Living in Mashhad”, AREU, 2005, Living%20in%20Mashad-CS-web.pdf

Editor: Anukriti Prakash

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