Afghan refugees' unending plight
Afghan refugees in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province
By Pam O'Toole
Over 20 years after conflict first broke out in their country, Afghans remain the biggest single refugee group in the world. More than 2.6 million of them remain in exile, the vast majority in Iran and Pakistan.
Originally they were the victims of Cold War conflict, fleeing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
Over the next 10 years, as fighting continued between the occupying Soviet forces and a disparate coalition of Afghan Mujaheddin groups backed by the West, Afghans continued to leave their country in large numbers.
By 1989, when Soviet troops finally withdrew from Afghanistan under the terms of a UN sponsored peace settlement, Iran and Pakistan were playing host to around six million Afghan refugees.
In the early 1990s, as the disparate Afghan Mujaheddin groups who had united against Soviet forces struggled to set up their own government, large numbers of Afghans began to return, even though fighting soon erupted again between the Mujaheddin factions.
By 1996, when the radical Islamic Taleban movement captured the Afghan capital, Kabul, only about 2.7 million remained outside Afghanistan's borders.
Since then repatriation has been slow, despite the fact that both Iran and Pakistan, struggling with their own economic problems, have been encouraging the refugees to return home.
Last year Iran launched a major voluntary repatriation scheme aimed at many of the estimated 1.4 million Afghans on its territory, which led to more than almost 200,000 returning to their homeland, either independently or with support from the United Nations.
But repatriation programmes were scaled back after it became clear that Afghanistan was suffering its worst drought in almost 30 years.
That drought, combined with continued fighting and allegations of continuing human rights abuses, has led to thousands more Afghans being internally displaced or even crossing international borders.
Internal displacement now stands at around 150,000, while more than 60,000 new Afghan refugees fled to Pakistan during the last four months of 2000.
Afghan refugees have a variety of reasons for wishing to remain in exile. Many are religious or ethnic minorities who allege that they have suffered human rights abuses at the hands of the Taleban movement, which is largely Sunni and ethnic Pashtoon.
Others were officials under the former Soviet-backed government of Dr Najibullah.
Refugee groups maintain that various Taleban restrictions on female education and employment have also prompted a renewed exodus of Afghan intellectuals.
The Taleban themselves insist that people are leaving Afghanistan for purely economic reasons and say that UN sanctions against the movement are exacerbating an already desperate economic situation.
No end in sight
The past few years have also seen a rise in the number of Afghan asylum seekers arriving in the West, some of whom have previously spent years living as refugees in Iran or Pakistan.
Some maintain that they left the region because they are being made to feel increasingly unwelcome in those countries, or because they were not being offered sufficient educational or employment opportunities.
So far there is no sign of an end to Afghanistan's 20 year conflict. The recent drought has further damaged the country's already devastated economy.
With little to look forward to at home, for the time being, most of the 2.6 million Afghan refugees are likely to opt to remain in exile.
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