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REFUGEE FATIGUE: How The Afghan Refugees Have Been Ignored


Thursday, May. 17, 2001

Fleeing a human rights and humanitarian catastrophe, thousands of people are trying to leave war-ravaged Afghanistan. Besides drought and the threat of famine, they seek to escape the rule of one of the world's most repressive armed groups. The Taliban, who control the vast bulk of Afghanistan's territory, are responsible for massacres, summary executions, and torture, as well as massive violations of women's human rights.

But uprooted Afghans find no certain refuge. Despite the dreadful dimensions of the crisis in Afghanistan — and it is a crisis in every sense of the word — the international response has been relatively meager. The U.N. agency charged with protecting Afghan refugees has had to scale back its programs due to a lack of donor support. Among rich Western countries, refugee fatigue is the order of the day.

An Unwanted Burden

Nor are neighboring countries any more willing to shoulder the burden of refugee protection. Afghan refugees live in squalor in Pakistani camps, dying daily of dehydration and heat stroke. The Jalozai camp, a particularly horrid hell hole in northwest Pakistan, holds some 80,000 Afghans in conditions of extreme deprivation.

Pakistan has barred the U.N. refugee agency from registering people in the camps, a precondition for the widespread distribution of aid. Nor have the Pakistani authorities allowed the U.N. to move the refugees to a more suitable location.

Because they border on Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran have been the two major recipients of Afghan refugee flows. Each now gives refuge to well over a million Afghans. But with the armed conflict in Afghanistan continuing for decades (thanks in part to Iranian and Pakistani support for the warring factions), the two countries feel that their hospitality has been abused.

Both of them have, at times over the past year, closed their borders to incoming Afghans, as has Tajikistan, another neighboring country. And they have also been putting increasing pressure on the Afghan refugees already within their borders to return home.

The Afghan Tragedy

But if conditions for Afghans are difficult in neighboring countries, they are intolerable within Afghanistan itself. The country's ongoing civil war, which pits the Taliban against the United National Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, is just the latest episode in a cycle of armed conflict that dates back to 1979, with the Soviet invasion.

Human Rights Watch recently documented two massacres committed by Taliban forces in the central highlands of Afghanistan, in January 2001 and May 2000. The massacres, in which over 200 civilians were killed, are part of an ugly series of atrocities in the country's civil war. Ethnic and religious minorities have been especially vulnerable to such abuses.

Abuses against women in Afghanistan are systematic and appalling. Girls are forbidden to attend school beyond the age of twelve, and women cannot work outside the home. Because of the rules requiring strict segregation of the sexes, few women have access to health care, including maternity care.

The current drought in Afghanistan, said to be the worst in at least thirty years, has worsened the situation dramatically. It was wiped out entire herds, killed crops, and left thousands of people with no means of survival.

Remember When We Cared about Refugees?

The Afghans' plight bears some resemblance to another recent refugee crisis. When the Kosovar Albanians fled to Macedonia in April 1999, the latter country was less than eager to receive them. But with much international support and prodding, it did.

Like Pakistan, Macedonia is a relatively poor country in an extremely volatile region. Like Pakistan, Macedonia feared that the continuing influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees would overwhelm its meager resources. And, like Pakistan, Macedonia closed its borders to the fleeing refugees, creating serious humanitarian consequences.

Within days of Macedonia's closing its borders, western countries initiated an elaborate program of evacuating refugees. The rationale was to relieve the pressure and stabilize the situation in Macedonia and thus ensure that the borders were kept open. The western powers also spent many millions of dollars to feed and support the Kosovars, relieving Macedonia of the financial burden of an enormous refugee population.

Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran can, of course, expect no such attention. The world's media have not flocked to document their plight, nor have international donations poured in to remedy their suffering. And western governments would never think of offering to airlift Afghan refugees to their own countries. The disparity in the international response to global refugee emergencies is stark.

Ruud Lubbers, the new head of the UNHCR, wants rich countries such as the United States and the members states of the European Union to bear a larger share of the costs of caring for the world's refugees. His stated goal is for rich countries to donate $1 per capita annually, not a terribly drastic jump up from the 85 cents that the United State currently provides. As former prime minister of the Netherlands, a country that pays something in the range of $7 per capita, Lubbers is well positioned to lay down such a challenge.

Lubbers' call deserves a response. While the world might usefully debate the proper remedies to the Afghan crisis, indifference should not be an option.

Joanne Mariner is deputy director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch. Her previous columns about other human rights issues, including those in Kosovo, can be found in's archive. During the Kosovar refugee crisis, she interviewed Albanian refugees for Human Rights Watch. The views expressed in her columns are her own, and do not necessarily reflect those of Human Rights Watch.

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