The Role of the UNHCR and the Afghan Refugees in Pakistan

Written By: A. Qasim Swati (Manchester, UK)

Created in 1950, originally, for helping millions of Europeans who had fled or lost homes, as a result of the Second World War, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is still working hard to assist and protect refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people, and cooperate with them in their voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement to a third country around the world. This is, mainly, a programme governed by the General Assembly of the United Nations and the UN Economic and Social Council. It continues its mission for protecting the rights of refugees in association and collaboration with a number of other agencies and programmes under the auspices of the United Nations.

Besides helping the Europeans affected by the World War II, the UNHCR made every effort to resettle the 200,000 Hungarians, who had fled to neighbouring Austria during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956.

Similarly, the same UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) coped with the crises of Chinese refugees in Hong Kong in 1957 and also responded to the Algerian refugee crises who had run away to Morocco and Tunisia, as a result of the Algeria’s War for Independence. During 1960s, the UNHCR had to help the refugee crises in Africa, resulted from the decolonization of the continent. In 1970s, the agency took the responsibility of helping the refugees of East Pakistan to India and also the refugees of the Vietnam War that lasted from 1955 to 1975. However, no one can ignore and forget the efforts made by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for dealing with the 1994 Rwanda Genocide (lasting for a100-day-period) that killed 500,000 to 1,000,000, as estimated.

Currently, the main mission of the UNHCR is to help and assist IDPs and refugees in camps and urban settings in such parts of the world, as South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Kenya, Syria, Yemen and Iraq (Source: UNHCR).

The Soviet War in Afghanistan displaced around six million people to neighbouring Pakistan and Iran, as a result of the Soviet attack on Afghanistan in December, 1979, until the end of the war in February, 1989. During this period, the number of Soviet soldiers killed in the war account for about 15,000 and some 35,000 of them suffered severe injuries (

However, it is estimated that about two million Afghan civilians were killed while the fighting continued (Marek Sliwinski, (1989) “Afghanistan: the decimation of a people”, Orbis, vol.33, winter, 1988 – 89, pp.39 – 56).

Similarly, more than 75,000 Mujahidden lost their lives during the war that lasted for a decade (Giustozzi, Antonio (2000) War, politics and society in Afghanistan, 1978 – 1992).

Apart from it, about 18,000 Afghan forces also got killed in the war (Isby, David C. (1986). Russia’s War in Afghanistan-David C. Isby, David Isby – Google Libros).

Likewise, more than 31,000 Afghan civilians and over 6,200 U.S. soldiers have been killed in a 10-year-war since 2001 after the U.S. attack on the Taliban government in Afghanistan.

Like somewhere else in the world, the UNHCR is struggling to help millions of Afghan refugees, who are still suffering in various ways in Pakistan. Despite the repatriation of around 3.5 million Afghan refugees from Pakistan and Iran after September 11, 2011, there are still about 1.5 million (or more specifically, 1,394,625) registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan, apart from a huge number of undocumented or unregistered Afghan refugees in the country.  These refugees entered into Pakistan in several large-scale influxes since the Soviet attack on Afghanistan in 1979. In spite of being the second largest refugee population in the world, the Afghan people are still faced with so many problems, as the law and order situation is increasingly deteriorating in various parts of the country, and, thus, they are forced to flee their country even in 2018 due to the continuous aggressive violence prevalent in Afghanistan.

After living in more than of thirty-five years of protracted displacement, the Afghan refugees constitute the largest protracted refugee situation under the UNHCR’s mandate and, therefore, still more than one fifth of the global refugee population is represented by them and, thus, they make up 40% of the world’s protracted caseload, as well (Source: UNHCR).

The Province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (Pakistan) hosts about 62% of the approximately 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees in the country, while the remaining of such refugees reside in other parts of Pakistan, like 20% in the province of Balochistan, 11% in Punjab, 4% in Sindh, 2% in Islamabad and less than 1% in the Pakistani-administered Kashmir. In addition to the 1.5 million refugees, it is estimated that there are around 1 million undocumented or unregistered Afghans in Pakistan, too. (

Asylum has also been sought in industrialized countries outside the region by some 238,000 Afghan residents since 1994 with the advent of Taliban. In this way, the biggest industrialized host countries of Afghan refugees since 1994 included Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Austria, Hungary and Denmark, respectively. At present, the number of asylum applications made by the Afghan refugees has declined, but there are still, approximately, 47,000 recognized Afghan refugees hosted by Germany, 26,000 by the Netherlands, 24,000 by the UK and 15,000 by Canada, as estimated by the UNHCR.

The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is trying its best to coordinate and cooperate with the relevant authorities for enabling the Afghan refugees to go back to Afghanistan with dignity, honour and respect in a safe, gradual and voluntary manner and way.

The same UN Refugee Agency also undertakes the responsibility of protecting both the refugees as well as the IDPs (the Internally Displaced People/Persons) in some way. Likewise, the Internally Displaced People are prioritised to be protected and assisted by the Agency on one hand, and vulnerable displaced people are provided with emergency shelter assistance, care relief and non-food items by the UNHCR, on the other hand. (Source: UNHCR,

According to the returnee monitoring data gathered by the UNCHR while conducting an analysis, the different factors responsible for the decision of the refugees to leave Pakistan and go back to Afghanistan include such elements, as harassment, economic problems, fear of arrest and deportation in Pakistan. However, such other factors, as a perceived improvement in the security situation in some parts of their home country (Afghanistan), their desire to reunite with their families, a reduced fear of persecution, the promises of the government of Afghanistan for providing land and shelter to the returnees upon their arrival and the hope of receiving the UNHCR’s assistance package when they return to Afghanistan also played a significant role in making their minds to return to their own home country (Source:

Besides the afore-said factors responsible for the decision of the Afghan refugees to return to Afghanistan, there were some other elements for making the Afghan refugees willing to go back home in the form of such dilemmas and psychological anguish for them to face, as the enforcement of a National Action Plan by the government of Pakistan for preventing terrorism in the country, the concern and worry of the Afghan refugees over Proof of Registration Card’s validity, its extension and the future stay of registered Afghans in Pakistan, the introduction of formal border management controls at Torkham and unfavourable business opportunities for the Afghan people in Pakistan. The campaign, asking Afghans to return home, by the Afghan government also played a role in their decision to go back to Afghanistan. (Source: UNHCR).

More than 5.8 million Afghan refugees have come back to Afghanistan since 2002. The UNHCR has helped and cooperated with more than 80 per cent of such Afghans during their return, as a part of the voluntary repatriation programme started and conducted by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (

Endorsed by the international community in the International Conference, held in May, 2012, the Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees (SSAR) was developed by Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, with the support of the UNHCR, in order to help and support the voluntary return (repatriation) of Afghan refugees to Afghanistan and their reintegration after their return in their home country and also to help the host countries, like Iran and Pakistan, which have shouldered the responsibility of providing refuge and shelter to the Afghan refugees. This is a multi-year regional framework making efforts to look for solutions to the problems faced by the Afghans living in a protracted situation, lasting for the last, almost, four decades. (

As given in the Progress Report, 2014 (Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees), a number of about 13,000 Afghan refugees left Pakistan and went back to Afghanistan in 2014, as a result of the Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees (SSAR). The refugees were also provided with the required shelter and necessary services, like education, health, sanitation, water supply and other such necessities of life. Consequently, more than 77,000 Afghan refugee children, living in the refugee villages, were provided with free primary education. Apart from it, different education projects were implemented in schools across 12 districts in Pakistan under the Refugee Affected and Hosting Areas (RAHA) programme for improving the academic capacity of children. Likewise, tertiary education was provided for a number of students with the help of DAFI scholarships (the UNHCR’s higher education scholarship programme, as best known by its acronym, DAFI) and other scholarships supported by the UNHCR. (

Similarly, 790 people were given training, under a RAHA project, in different training centres, located in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa through vocational training projects in 18 various trades. The majority of the trainees (70 per cent) were female. At the end of the training, apprenticeship placements are offered by the projects at different training centres in Haripur and Mansehra (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and in Quetta, Loralai and Pishin (Balochistan). (Source: The Progress Report, 2014 (Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees).

As part of the Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees, returnees and refugees were provided with social and environmental protection and host communities were supported and helped as well. So, more than 384 refugee community committees were set up or established in refugee villages for mobilizing community engagement. These committees included both youth groups and women who have played an important role in promoting efforts and raising awareness in people for maximizing school enrolment and minimizing dropouts. Efforts were also made for eliminating and eradicating gender-based and domestic violence, as well.

Accordingly, technical and material support and awareness-raising sessions were provided and facilitated, in relation to such issues, as human rights law and other refugee-related matters, for all those concerned, like  border officials, judiciary, public prosecutors and police officers, in order to help refugees, returnees and host communities and get the most from the programme. Thus, the funds received and spent by UNHCR and its partners in Pakistan on the welfare and problem-solution of the Afghan refugees, under the SSAR programme amounted to $43,200,102 in the US Currency. The activities covered by the relevant funds included coordination and supporting role, social and environmental protection and resettlement, livelihoods and food security, access to essential services and shelter, and voluntary repatriation or return of the Afghan refugees, residing in Pakistan. (

In order to fulfil its commitment towards the protection, assistance and support of the Afghan refugees in Pakistan, the UNHCR leaves no stone unturned to work continuously and ensure the voluntary repatriation and sustainable reintegration of the Afghan refugees.

‘The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as published in Dawn, November 17th, 2017, says, ‘that the pace of return of Afghan refugees back home is expected to remain modest in 2018. In 2018, data from the UNHCR’s protection-based monitoring in Afghanistan will continue to help address protection issues in the country, support the transition between humanitarian assistance and development work, and inform government-led reintegration activities.’ ( UNHCR expects ‘modest’ return of Afghan refugees in 2018 – Newspaper – DAWN.COM).

As published on 19 March, 2018, the report from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees says that UNHCR supports Pakistan and Afghanistan to secure sustainable solutions for Afghan refugees. ‘The UNHCR reaffirmed its commitment to work with the Governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan on long-term solutions for 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan’. The UNHCR’s representative for Pakistan, Ms. Ruvendrini Menikdiwela, reminded the international community once more to keep on helping the Afghan refugees and their host communities with providing as much support as it can. She also assured that UNHCR would carry on its assistance with Pakistan in looking for the solid and permanent solutions for the Afghan refugees, one of the world’s most protracted refugee populations. She, further, said in the report, as, ‘While voluntary repatriation is a preferred solution for the majority of Afghan refugees, it needs to be undertaken in a phased manner that supports refugees’ sustainable reintegration back home in Afghanistan. UNHCR will continue to work with the Government of Pakistan in line with their Comprehensive Policy on Voluntary Repatriation and Management of Afghan Nationals; and assist both Governments within a Tripartite Framework and agreed Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees (SSAR)’.(

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