Waves of conflict and displacement

Almost four decades of conflict and instability in Afghanistan has created the world's largest protracted refugee situation. With 2.7 million refugees, Afghanistan is the second largest source country of refugees, following Syria. 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. 

Following the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, there was a significant increase in refugees fleeing Afghanistan, which continued over the following decade. By 1981, 3.7 million refugees had fled to neighbouring Iran and Pakistan.

In 1988, the Soviet Union agreed to withdraw from Afghanistan, and UNHCR and the international community prepared for large-scale repatriation of Afghan refugees from Pakistan and Iran.

Large-scale returns had begun around 1992, when Kabul descended into armed conflict as various factions began fighting for control of the capital and the surrounding area. After a year-long siege, the Taliban took control of Kabul in 1996, and by 1998 had gained control of most of the country.

A new wave of people became displaced, though the majority remained within Afghanistan’s borders as internally displaced people. With the Taliban’s severe restrictions on women’s activities, education, and social and cultural life, many Afghans across international borders.

A further wave of refugees left Afghanistan during the invasion of October 2001, led by the United States. With the defeat of the Taliban a month later, UNHCR led another mass repatriation.

Since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, a new constitution has been adopted and presidential, parliamentary and provincial elections have been taking place. However, conflict between government forces and the Taliban has continued, with a number of Afghan provinces at high risk of Taliban control and attacks on civilian.  A 2015 report from the United States Department of State found widespread human rights problems including violence and societal discrimination along class, race, gender and religious lines.

From 1981 to 2013, Afghanistan was ranked as the top country of origin for refugees worldwide. Afghans were the second-largest group of asylum seekers, with 239,600 new applications registered during 2015. This excludes the more than 2.6 million refugees recognised in Iran and Pakistan on a prima facie basis currently residing in these countries.

In 2015, the majority of Afghan refugees resided in Pakistan (1.6 million) and Iran (951,100), as well as Germany (30,000), Austria (17,500), Sweden (13,100), Italy (12,200), and India (10,200).

Afghanistan ratified the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol in 2005, becoming the 146th country to ratify either the Convention or its Protocol. While Afghanistan remains a significant source country for refugees as war and civil conflict continue, Afghanistan has also hosted many refugees in recent decades, especially from Central Asia, thereby its accession to the 1951 Convention was widely welcomed. 

The Hazara

During this time, one of Afghanistan’s largest ethnic minorities – the Hazara – were particularly targeted and persecuted by the Taliban. The Hazara are primarily Persian-speaking Shia Muslims who have, for centuries, faced discrimination and persecution from the predominantly Sunni Muslim population. The Taliban declared war against the Shia Hazaras during their rule in the late 1990s, and many thousands lost their lives during a series of mass killings, fleeing to Shia Iran, Europe and beyond.

While the situation for the Hazara minority improved in the early 2000s following the overthrow of the Taliban, the Hazara continue to face persistent ethnic and religious persecution throughout Afghanistan. The resurgent Taliban power in recent years has meant thousands are again fleeing Afghanistan and seeking asylum.

Repatriation programs

Beginning in 2002, UNHCR and Afghanistan established separate agreements with Pakistan and Iran to enable voluntary repatriations (one of the durable solutions available to refugees) of Afghans to occur. Since 2002, 4.7 million refugees have returned to Afghanistan under the UNHCR’s largest voluntary repatriation programme. Afghanistan reported the largest number of returned refugees during 2015, at 61,400. Afghanistan had a further surge in the number of refugees returning in the second half of 2016. Some 370,000 Afghan refugees returned from Pakistan in this time, marking a ten-year high. Those were returning as a result of a range of complex factors including deteriorating living conditions and growing intolerance for refugees.

While security has improved significantly in some areas, repatriation is not possible or safe for all of those outside the country. A significant number of Afghans remain in exile, many of whom fled conflicts which pre-date the 2001 invasion. Worldwide, there are more than four million Afghan refugees, asylum seekers and people in refugee-like situations.

Afghani asylum seekers in Australia and Europe

The Hazara have made up a large proportion of Afghanistan people who have, and continue to, seek asylum in Australia. For each financial year in the period 2001 to 2015, Afghanistan has been ranked in the top four countries of origin for Australia's offshore humanitarian program.

Afghanistan was also the top country of origin for ‘irregular maritime arrivals’ (IMA) each year in the period 2008 to 2012. At May 2017, 2475 people with main citizenship to Afghanistan were being counted as part of the ‘IMA Legacy Caseload’.

Most recent reports from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection do not identify Afghanistan as a country of origin for those detained in Australian immigration detention facilities. However, the Department told a Senates Estimates hearing that Afghanistan nationals are one of the groups being held in detention or in the community on Manus Island.

Afghanistan is also a significant source country of asylum seekers entering the European Union. According to UN estimates, in 2015 21 per cent of arrivals to the Mediterranean were from Afghanistan. In October 2016, The European Union signed an agreement with the Afghanistan government allowing its member states to return the country’s nationals who ‘do not fulfil the conditions in force for entry to, presence in, or residence on the territory of the EU’, and obliging the Afghan government to receive them.

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Last updated October 2017.