COVID-19, Insecurity Slow Afghan Refugee Returns From Pakistan and Iran

The U.N. refugee agency reports the COVID-19 pandemic, violence and insecurity in Afghanistan have discouraged Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran from returning to the homes they fled many years ago.

After the fall of the Taliban in 2002, Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran began going home in droves.  U.N. refugee spokesman, Babar Baloch, tells VOA he witnessed huge numbers of people who had been living in exile, many for more than two decades returning.

“I was present at the border point in Pakistan where Afghans were going in thousands,” Baloch said. “So, we saw at least more than a million initially during 2002 and the coming years.  And since then, we have at least helped through UNHCR’s voluntary return program at least nearly five million Afghan refugees that have gone home, mostly from Pakistan and Iran.”

Afghan returns now have slowed down to a trickle.  This year, the UNHCR reports upwards of 2,000 refugees have returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan and Iran.  It says all returns were suspended in March because of COVID-19.

However, Baloch says an upsurge in deadly attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure, including hospitals and the recent attack against Kabul University, also have acted as a disincentive for people to go home.

He says Afghans hope the U.S. mediated Afghan-Taliban peace negotiations will succeed and end the conflict in their country.

“With that, it is also important that the international community that has remained engaged inside Afghanistan for the last at least two decades and all the gains that Afghans have been able to make because of that—So, that attention is still required,” Baloch said.

Baloch says international solidarity and the peace process are interlinked.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, who has just completed a four-day visit to Afghanistan has warned of a big humanitarian disaster in the country if the peace effort collapses.  He urged the international community to remain committed to Afghanistan and for their continued support for internally displaced and returning Afghans.

Unlike the significant drop in Afghan refugee returns, the International Organization for Migration reports more than 742,000 undocumented Afghan migrants, mostly in Iran, have returned home this year.

Currently, the UNHCR reports 2.4 million Afghan refugees remain in Pakistan and Iran because they fear for their lives if they return home.  On the other hand, Afghan undocumented migrant workers, who went to Iran and Pakistan in search of work to support their families, have returned home in great numbers because there are no jobs available in the informal sector.

IOM explains that a slowdown in Iran’s economy and COVID-19 have dried up job opportunities for Afghan migrant labor.

More on this story from Voice of America