More than 30 years of conflict and instability in Afghanistan has created what the UNHCR described as 'the world's largest protracted refugee situation' (UNHCR 2013). While significant numbers of refugees have been repatriated to Afghanistan in recent years many others continue to live in exile, most in neighbouring countries. Afghanistan is a significant source country for both Australia's offshore and onshore resettlement programs.

Afghanistan's troubled political history has generated successive waves of refugees since 1978, when the Marxist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan came to power (p 2). A recent exodus followed the invasion in October 2001 by the United States and its allies. While UNHCR and regional governments have been pursuing repatriation strategies since November 2001, significant numbers of Afghans remain in exile (p 3), many of whom fled conflicts which pre-date the 2001 invasion.

While security has improved significantly in some areas, repatriation is not possible or safe for all of those in outside the country. A 2012 report (p 45) from the United States Department of State found widespread human rights violations including 'discrimination against Shia Hazaras... along class, race, and religious lines'. 

Since 2002, more than 5.7 million Afghan refugees have returned. There are 2.44 million Afghan refugees registered with UNHCR living in neighbouring Pakistan and Iran, and it is estimated that another 2.4 million live in these countries without documentation. Worldwide, there are more than four million Afghan refugees, asylum seekers and people in refugee-like situations.

For each financial year in the period 2001 to 2012, Afghanistan ranked (p 13) in the top four countries of origin for Australia's offshore humanitarian program. Afghanistan was also the top country (p 25) of origin for irregular maritime arrivals (IMAs) each year in the period 2008 to 2012. As at 30 April 2013, Afghans made up 14 per cent of people in immigration detention facilities, and 13 per cent of those in community detention.

In January 2011, Australia's then Minister for Immigration and Citizenship signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Afghan government and UNHCR so that unsuccessful asylum seekers could be involuntarily returned to Afghanistan. Just two asylum seekers, who both arrived by plane in 2012, have been returned under this agreement.

In March 2013 the then Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) had marked 120 failed Afghan asylum seekers for return to Afghanistan. Their immediate deportation however was prevented by a decision of the Full Federal Court, which found that the process by which their asylum claims had been determined was procedurally unfair.

Amnesty International, Afghanistan: Refugees from Afghanistan: The world's largest single refugee group (1999).

Amnesty International, Afghanistan: The human rights crisis and the refugees (1995)

Department of Immigration and Citizenship, Asylum Trends – Australia: 2011-12 Annual Publication (2012)

Department of Immigration and Citizenship, Australia's Humanitarian Program 2013-14 and beyond (2012)

Department of Immigration and Citizenship, Country Profile: Afghanistan (2012)

Department of Immigration and Citizenship, Immigration Detention Statistics Summary 30 April 2013

(2013)Margesson, Rhoda, Afghan Refugees: Current Status and Future Prospects (2007) Congressional Research Service Report

Phillips, Janet and Harriet Spinks, Boat arrivals in Australia since 1976 (2013), page 12, Parliament of Australian Research Paper

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, '2013 UNHCR regional operations profile – South-West Asia (2013)

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, '2014 UNHCR regional operations profile – South-West Asia (2014)

United States Department of State, Afghanistan 2012 Human Rights Report (2012)