Life on the Margins: The situation for Afghan Refugees

20 June 2015

by Monica Encinas

On World Refugee Day, Monica Encinas looks at the growing challenges facing Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan and the difficulties for those providing them assistance.

Iran and Pakistan are home to the largest Afghan refugee populations in the world. Latest figures show 950,000 Afghan refugees registered in Iran and 1.5 million in Pakistan. A further 3 million undocumented Afghan refugees reside in these neighbouring countries.

Afghan refugees are deported in unprecedented numbers. UNHCR and IOM report 25,000 returning to Afghanistan each month from Iran, whilst 52,000 returned from Pakistan over the span of only 10 weeks earlier this year. Some of these returns are deemed voluntary however the majority are a consequence of deportations and coercion.

Life for Afghan refugees in Pakistan & Iran

Life in Pakistan and Iran is not easy for Afghan refugees. These countries do provide limited access to shelter, water, and health services. However, even when there is enough to go around, often refugees simply cannot afford them.  

In many cases, refugees are treated as second class citizens. In Iran, restrictions on property ownership and free movement to 28 of the country’s 31 provinces make refugee life an extraordinary struggle. In Pakistan, house raids and evictions instigated by the authorities have become routine, leaving families with no alternative but to return to an Afghanistan that is not yet ready for them.

Those lucky enough to find a job in Iran must consider how to make it to work since Iranian law prohibits them from holding a driver’s license or owning a vehicle. (See Isa’s story here). Discriminatory laws in Iran dictate who refugees can and cannot marry and status as a refugee bars them from several schools and universities.

Of great concern is the situation for undocumented children refugees since under Iranian criminal law, girls are considered adults at the age of 9 and boys at the age of 15. Thousands of deported refugees are unaccompanied boys.  Often these boys experience abuse while in detention and police have been known to confiscate their identification papers and mobile phones before deporting them.

Unregistered Afghan refugees in Pakistan have been increasingly experiencing forced detention, interrogation, and deportation since December 2014. This was when a group of Pakistani Taliban attacked a school killing 132 children in Peshawar. Following the attack, Pakistan adopted extraordinary anti-terrorism legislation which calls for the repatriation of Afghan refugees.

The deportation of unregistered refugees sidesteps the Tripartite Agreement between Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the UNHCR which stipulates protection only for registered refugees. All refugee registration cards expire at the end of 2015 and it is unclear whether they will be renewed and if so, for how long.

Funding remains limited

An anticipated 40% of Afghan refugees returning from Pakistan will struggle to secure adequate food and shelter. Others will require psycho-social support and family reunification efforts.

Lack of adequate funding has an enormous impact on the ability for national and international actors to provide services to Afghan refugees.  Last year, Iran only saw 21% of the estimated $68.7 million required to respond to refugees in need. Similarly, programmes in Pakistan fell short, receiving 25% of the $162.6 million needed. 

The UNHCR Global Appeal for 2015 requests $210 million for the two countries and it is unclear how much of that has been obtained.  Additional cuts mean the IOM’s Cross Border Return and Reintegration Program can now only respond to 10% of their caseload.

According to the Iranian Consortium for Afghan Refugees (ICRI), added challenges include international sanctions in Iran and the fact that the country is considered ‘middle income’ by the Human Development Index. 

As Afghanistan struggles to cope with the inflow of returnees, the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation has had to cut their budget for 2015 to a mere $250,000.

National and international NGOs continue to support Afghan refugees in both countries providing clean water, food, shelter, and education. But they too face funding challenges. Organisations such as War Child UK are working at the Iran/Afghanistan border to identify unaccompanied and separated minors to ensure they receive the necessary support to return to their families or find an alternative livelihood in Afghanistan.

For many Afghan refugees living in Iran and Pakistan, their situation is as fragile as the country they come from. Life as an ‘illegal’ is wrought with hardship and sorrow.  Iran and Pakistan cannot be faulted for having limited resources. However, their authorities must urgently remind themselves that refugees are human beings. International donors could do with a reminder too.