Afghan refugees in Iran & Pakistan

Source: ICMC Europe, Welcome to Europe! A comprehensive guide to resettlement, 2013

Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan constitute the largest and most protracted refugee population under UNHCR’s mandate. Pakistan hosts 1,615,876 refugees, and Iran 840,158 at 1 January 2014. The majority have been resident in both countries since fleeing the Soviet War in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Despite the success of voluntary repatriation programmes both in Pakistan and Iran, many Afghan refugees have specific needs, vulnerabilities and protection concerns that prevent their return. In addition, the volatile security situation and human rights violations in Afghanistan remain an ongoing concern. In May 2012, the governments of Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and UNHCR adopted the Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees (SSAR). The SSAR outlines the need for increased voluntary repatriation, but also for enhanced resettlement as a means of international responsibility sharing, assistance to refugee affected and hosting areas (RAH) and alternative stay arrangements for refugees in Pakistan. Resettlement is considered to be a strategic component of the SSAR and a vital tool for maintaining adequate protection space.

Afghan refugees in Pakistan

Pakistan is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention or the 1967 Protocol. The temporary stay of registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan is regularised by means of Proof of Registration cards, all of which expired on 31 December 2012. The Pakistani government extended their right to stay for an additional 6 months until the end of June 2013, and in July 2013 announced a further extension.

In Pakistan, 36% of the Afghan refugee population lives in refugee camps – known locally as ‘refugee villages’- and 63% in urban settings. In addition to the 1.7 million refugees registered with the government, it is estimated that a further one million  undocumented Afghans live in the country. 85.1% of the Afghans in Pakistan are Pashtun, and the remainder are Tajiks, Uzbeks among others. One of the most vulnerable Afghan refugee groups is the ethnic Hazara, who face targeted killings and persecution by the Taliban and anti-Shia factions in Afghanistan. For the Hazara, and for other Afghan refugee groups, voluntary repatriation is therefore not a viable durable solution.

Since 2002, some 5.7 million Afghan refugees have returned to Afghanistan. From 2002 to 2012, UNHCR facilitated the largest voluntary repatriation programme via which 3.8 million refugees returned from Pakistan to Afghanistan. However, due to the volatile security in Afghanistan, voluntary repatriation was scaling down over the past years. Prospects for local integration remain low, as refugees have limited access to recognised legal status and to related services.

In late 2012, a Contact Group on Resettlement chaired by the Government of Australia was formed to mobilize international support for resettlement.

UNHCR has projected a total multiyear resettlement need amongst the Afghan refugee population in Pakistan amounting to 26,800 persons. For 2014, UNHCR is planning to submit for resettlement 3,850 Afghans from Pakistan. In 2012, UNHCR assisted the departure of 283 Afghan refugees from Pakistan.

Afghan refugees in Iran

Iran is a signatory to the 1951Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Hazara and Tajiks represent over 70% of the Afghan refugee population in Iran, with the remainder consisting of other ethnic groups such as the Pashtuns. Most refugees in Iran reside in urban areas, with only 3 per cent living in settlements mostly located in rural areas.

Prospects for local integration are limited and increasingly difficult due to the deteriorating economic situation. Refugees’ movements within Iran are limited to so-called ‘No-Go Areas,’ and the living standards of Afghan refugees have deteriorated significantly in recent years. During 2002-12, UNHCR subsequently assisted the voluntary repatriation of approximately 902,000 Afghan refugees resident in Iran. Due to the difficult economic conditions in Iran, voluntary repatriation to Afghanistan has risen in 2011. Resettlement is therefore an important durable solution for the Afghan refugee population although only a very small number of Afghan refugees in Iran have benefited from such solution so far.

In 2011, the Refugee Contact Group on Iran was established with the aim of enhancing the ongoing resettlement of Afghan refugees from Iran. Presently chaired by Sweden, with a membership comprising UNHCR and selected resettlement countries (Australia, Finland and Germany, with Brazil and Japan as observers), the Contact Group works in close cooperation with the Iranian government. It aims to increase the number of resettlement places available for Afghan refugees in Iran, and to encourage multi-year commitments by resettlement countries to make the process more predictable and reliable for all parties. In 2012, UNHCR assisted the departures of 1,427 Afghan refugees from Iran, three times the 2011 figure of 474 refugees. In addition to resettlement, the Contact Group has supported humanitarian assistance to refugees in Iran. A Health Insurance Scheme (HIS) was implemented in 2011, ensuring that refugees continue to benefit from free primary health care.

Iran has been designated as one of the seven priority refugee situations for the strategic use of resettlement. UNHCR has projected a total resettlement need of 82,000 persons among Afghan refugee populations in Iran. For 2013, UNHCR seeks as many as 5,000 places, including cases with special medical needs and women and girls at risk. However, there has been a growing reticence on the part of the resettlement countries to accept refugees with medical needs.

For Afghan refugees, the major countries of resettlement include Australia, Sweden, Finland and Norway.

Photo 1: Khadija, an ethnic Turkman refugee from Afghanistan in Pakistan, weaves a carpet alongside her sister and mother-in-law. On average, the family produces two carpets a month.UNHCR/D.A.Khan/ November 2011

Photo 2: A typical street scene in Rafsanjan settlement, Kerman. UNHCR/ M. H. Salehiara / April 2012