Afghan Refugees: Current Status and Future Prospects

Publication Date: January 2007

Publisher: Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service


Research Area: Population and demographics


Coverage: Afghanistan


The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has helped 3.69 million Afghan refugees return to Afghanistan since March 2002, marking the largest assisted return operation in its history. In addition, more than 1.11 million refugees have returned to Afghanistan without availing themselves of UNHCR's assistance, bringing the total number of returnees to at least 4.8 million. Despite the massive returns, possibly 3.5 million registered and unregistered Afghans still remain in these two countries of asylum -- up to 2.46 million in Pakistan and more than 900,000 in Iran -- making Afghans the second-largest refugee population in the world. These numbers are far greater than the initial working assumption in 2002 of 3.5 million refugees; in fact, the total is believed to be more than 8 million. The United States spent approximately $332.37 million between FY 2002 and FY 2005 on humanitarian assistance to Afghan refugees and returnees through the Department of State's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM). It continues to provide support to refugees and returnees.

The 110th Congress faces several relevant challenges. The safe and voluntary return of refugees to Afghanistan is not only a major part of the U.S. reconstruction effort in Afghanistan, but also an important indicator of its success. To the extent that refugees continue to return, it can be seen that Afghans are taking part in the future of their country. It is becoming more difficult, however, to encourage refugees to return. Those who were most capable of returning did so in the early years; those who remain have progressively less to return to -- houses, livelihoods, family -- in Afghanistan. Furthermore, maintaining the high pace of returns will require greater levels of reintegration assistance to anchor returnees in their homes and help them reestablish their lives in Afghanistan. Security will also be a major factor in population displacement within and across borders.

The status of Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran has also been somewhat controversial in recent years as these governments want all Afghan refugees to return to Afghanistan. Officials in Pakistan have become concerned that the concentrations of Afghans in the country pose a security and crime risk, as individuals and goods are smuggled across the border. At the same time, however, many observers argue that Afghan labor migration may be beneficial to both Iran and Pakistan -- which take advantage of cheap and effective immigrant labor -- as well as Afghanistan, whose citizens benefit heavily from remittances sent in from abroad. To cut off this source of income for many poor Afghans could have disastrous consequences -- not only humanitarian, but in the security sphere as well, as more than a million Afghans along the Afghan-Pakistan border are deprived of livelihoods and resort to other means to feed their families. Reportedly, many Afghans cross the border regularly, without documentation, and Islamabad does not appear to have the resources to control this flow. A future challenge will thus be to balance reasonable concerns about security with the importance of Afghanistan's labor plans in the regional economies and the forces that drive its migration patterns. It remains to be seen what effect the Pakistani government's recently announced plans for controlling and securing the Afghan border, through the construction of fences and planting of landmines, will have on refugee movements. This report will be updated.