Afghan Refugees

War has displaced Afghans from their homes and from their country for over three decades.  Over 5.7 million refugees have returned to Afghanistan since 2002, increasing the country’s population by approximately twenty-five percent [1].  However, overall trends since 2006 show a diminishing level of voluntary repatriation and growing internal displacement. [2] The number of refugee returnees in 2011 was the second lowest on record with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) since the start of the war.  Relatively low voluntary return rates may reflect mounting concerns among exiles about the security situation in Afghanistan.  

26 The Afghanistan that return refugees encounter upon their arrival is far from the economically and politically stable country that they might have hoped for.  The nutritional status of the population and access to basic services such as healthcare are good indicators of general well-being.  According to a November 2012 report by the Feinstein International Center, one in three Afghan children are malnourished, with rates of malnourishment far higher in conflict-affected regions such as those in the country’s south.  Among children under 5 years old, Afghanistan has the highest rate of stunted growth in the world.  Access to healthcare remains very limited, with 15% of the population without access to even the most basic healthcare services.  In areas where fighting continues, militants lack respect for the neutrality of healthcare facilities, making attending these facilities dangerous. [3] 

Because of the economic vulnerability and insecurity that Afghans face in their home regions, increasing numbers are on the move to other Afghan cities.  Over 15% of returned refugees had to move again in 2011, often from rural to urban areas to seek security, food, and work. [4] As of January 2012, the UNHCR estimates there are approximately 447,547 internally displaced people in Afghanistan.  Many return refugees have been unable to go back to their places of origin for reasons of continued insecurity or the lack of a viable livelihood. Poverty and disasters associated with natural hazard events have also contributed to the recent displacement of Afghans, but violence has been the major factor in involuntary population movements. Between June 2009 and September 2010, more than 120,000 Afghans fled their homes as a result of armed conflict. 

As of November 2012, there were still 1.8 million Afghans living in Pakistan given both security and economic instability in their home country. However, the country that for decades has hosted Afghan refugees has become the site of extensive military activity that has displaced Pakistanis internally as well as back and forth into Afghanistan.  In recent years political momentum has also been building in Pakistan to compel Afghan refugees to repatriate.  In July 2012, the Pakistani government announced it would not renew the ID cards of registered Afghan refugees, and as of January 2013, will treat them as illegal immigrants.  Not all Afghans are returning home.  The 2011 industrialized country asylum data notes a 30% increase in applications from Afghans from 2010 to 2011, primarily towards Germany and Turkey, reflecting the unwillingness of Afghan refugees to return and the eagerness of those still residing there to leave. [5] 

Many Afghans see their current government, hastily formed under US influence, as a continuation of the power and impunity of warlords rather than a reflection of true democratic participation. Many warlords received US military and financial backing and benefitted greatly from the Bonn meetings that created Afghanistan’s interim government in 2001. The perception of the Afghan government as corrupt and unjust has impeded long-awaited peace and well-being in Afghanistan.  (Text updated as of November 2012)



Numbers taken from UNHCR, “2011 UNHCR Country Operations Profile—Afghanistan,”


[1]  UNHCR, “2012 UNHCR country operations profile – Afghanistan,” (January, 2012),

[2]  Prisca Benelli, Antonio Donini, and Norah Niland, “Afghanistan:  Humanitarianism in Uncertain Times,” (November 2012), Feinstein International Center, Tufts University, p12.

[3]  Benelli et. al 6-8.

[4]  UNHCR, “UNHCR Global Report 2011--Afghanistan,” (June 1, 2012),

[5] Benelli et. al 13-14.