Afghanistan’s Refugee Crisis: Forty Years in the Making


Shelly Culbertson, Senior Policy Researcher

Afghanistan has a multigenerational refugee problem, dating from 1979 and then continuing with multiple wars and conflicts since. There are three million refugees from Afghanistan living in Pakistan and Iran, three or four million people who are displaced in Afghanistan inside their own country, and then we all saw the tens of thousands of desperate people at the airport seeking to get asylum in the United States or Europe.

These new circumstances in Afghanistan mean that the three million refugees from Afghanistan who are already in Pakistan and Iran are likely not going home any time soon. Most of them have been there for decades. And after the takeover of the Taliban, they're even more unlikely to return.

Our recent RAND study found that ten years after the end of a conflict, only thirty percent of refugees have returned. In the host countries, the refugees live in very difficult circumstances. The host countries are under strain and there's a lot of resentment of the refugees' presence. There are limits on their ability to work and access full public services such as education and health care. And no amount of aid to refugees can support them indefinitely. And the best solution would be to improve their ability to earn a livelihood.

RAND's work with Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon also recommended improving their ability to work. Allowing refugees to work creates a win-win solution, both for the refugees and for their host countries. For the three or four million people who are internally displaced inside Afghanistan, a lot of humanitarian aid has been cut off because of the rise of the Taliban. If the UN, United States and European countries want to help, one way is to find ways to enable humanitarian aid to flow while not having it diverted through the Taliban. In addition, they could use whatever available leverage they have with the Taliban to honor its commitments to innocent civilians.

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