Afghan Refugee Situation
It is more than forty years since the first Afghan refugees left their country, in what has become one of the largest and longest displacement crises in recent history. Today, the Islamic Republics of Iran and Pakistan continue to host the majority of Afghan refugees globally. They provide over 2 million registered Afghan refugees with access to their national health and education services, as well as other support. The international community has also continued to engage with the refugee response over many years and has joined the effort to find solutions for Afghan refugees through new initiatives.
In 2012, Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, with the support of UNHCR, developed the Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees to Support Voluntary Repatriation, Sustainable Reintegration and Assistance to Host Countries (SSAR). The SSAR strategy has served as an enabling multilateral vehicle for consensus-building, strengthening existing partnerships and engaging new actors. More than 60 government agencies, humanitarian and development actors, UN agencies and NGOs, have been engaged in its implementation to date. The SSAR strategy, importantly, acknowledges that refugee protection and solutions are a collective responsibility of the international community and require a commitment to address root causes of displacement and more equitable responsibility-sharing with host countries, particularly in support of their inclusive policies and resilience-building measures that benefit both refugees and host communities through investments in national and local systems.
A Support Platform for the SSAR strategy was created in 2019 to further underpin collective global efforts to build on a solutions approach. Based on the globally agreed need for solidarity and responsibility-sharing towards refugees, its creation is built out of provisions made for such types of platforms in the Global Compact on Refugees, which gained solid UN General Assembly support in 2018. The SSAR Support Platform is led by Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, with UNHCR acting as a secretariat. It provides a mechanism to enable the three countries and the international community to work together to enhance coordination and cooperation on solutions for Afghan refugees. Additionally important is the fact that a group of States, financial institutions, the European Union and UNDP have also joined together to support the work on solutions for Afghan refugees (known as the SSAR Core Group). It is chaired currently by the European Union.
Today, Afghanistan is experiencing a humanitarian emergency due to multiple factors, including conflict, climate impact, food insecurity, and economic downturn. Over half a million people have been internally displaced in 2021 alone. Today, joining some 3.4 million people remain displaced due to conflict in recent years. The resilience of people in Afghanistan is stretched, with internally displaced people among the most vulnerable. The imperative is to address the immediate and pre-existing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, which cannot wait for the resolution of other issues.
The United Nations and non-governmental organizations have launched joint response plans that aim to deliver vital humanitarian relief to 22 million people in Afghanistan and support 5.7 million displaced Afghans and local communities in five neighbouring countries.
The Plan for responding to humanitarian needs inside Afghanistan requires $4.44 billion. This sum, the most-ever sought for a single country, will cover emergency needs including protection for the most vulnerable and life-saving support in shelter, food security and health care.
In synergy with the SSAR Support Platform, UNHCR is also leading interagency coordination efforts in neighbouring countries in relation to current Afghan refugee population as well as preparedness efforts for potential arrivals. In August 2021 at the onset of the latest crisis, and in line with the Refugee Coordination Model, UNHCR led the development of an interagency Regional Refugee Preparedness and Response Plan for the Afghan situation covering the remainder of 2021. The plan sought to ensure preparedness in the neighbouring countries of Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Going forward, UNHCR is currently leading the development of RRP 2022 which will run from January to December 2022 and will cover the same neighbouring countries. RRP 2022 reaffirms a regional multi-stakeholder and multi-sectoral approach, by enhancing community-based investments in line with the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) and working towards the solutions outlined in the Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees (SSAR). RRP 2022 is an inclusive and participatory planning process including UN agencies and NGO partners as part of the development of the plan, in consultation with governments.
The Regional Refugee Response Plan launched for 2022 requires $623 million in funding for 40 organisations working in protection, health and nutrition, food security, shelter and non-food items, water and sanitation, livelihoods and resilience, education and logistics and telecoms.
Ongoing support and initiatives for solutions in Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan
- Afghanistan is experiencing a humanitarian crisis as violence and insecurity, particularly in 2021, brought more suffering and internal displacement for Afghans in the country. Over half a million people were internally displaced in the first half of in 2021 alone. The latest wave of violence was another blow for Afghans who have suffered more than 40 years of conflict, natural disasters, chronic poverty and food insecurity. The resilience of internally displaced and local communities is being stretched to the absolute limit. Support is urgently needed. UNHCR and many others are currently responding to this emergency.
- Since 2019, UNHCR’s support in Afghanistan has benefitted over 12 million people in 23 provinces of the country. This has been achieved largely through its community-based protection and solutions programme (Co-PROSPER) in Priority Areas of Return and Reintegration (PARRs). This programme aims to build resilient and stable communities by improving access to services through an area-based, conflict-sensitive, and humanitarian-development-peace (HDP) approach. Since 2019, UNHCR and partners have constructed, upgraded or expanded 82 schools, 34 health clinics, as well as built community centres, installed water and sanitation facilities, improved road and irrigation networks, supported household shelters (including through cash), and provided market-based skills training and business start-up support to returnees and host communities. A key focus continues to be on women and youth empowerment.
- There has been a declining trend in voluntary returns to Afghanistan (one of the key solutions areas identified in SSAR strategy). This trend is linked with multi-faceted developments in Afghanistan, including the deteriorating security situation, livelihoods opportunities, access to shelter and land, and other concerns potential returnees have. Nearly 5.3 million Afghan refugees returned to Afghanistan under UNHCR’s facilitated Voluntary Repatriation programme from 2002 onwards, though the numbers decreased since 2016. In 2020, only 2,147 refugees chose voluntarily to return home. In 2021, just over 1,363 had chosen to return.
- In August 2021, UNHCR called on States to halt the forcible return of Afghan nationals who have previously been determined not to be in need of international protection. It issued its non-return advisory in the wake of the rapid deterioration in the situation in large parts of Afghanistan and the unfolding humanitarian emergency. The advisory can be read in full here: UNHCR - UNHCR issues a non-return advisory for Afghanistan
- In addition to the extensive challenges Afghans face, COVID-19 continues to be a threat. UNHCR’s support to date has ensured over 1.6 m people have benefitted from hygiene awareness raising, provision of wash facilities, and the distribution of hygiene kits.
Islamic Republic of Iran
- Iran hosts 780,000 registered Afghan refugees. Since 2015, all Afghan children – including refugees and undocumented Afghans – can enrol in primary and secondary schools within the national education system and study the national curriculum, side by side with Iranian students. In 2016, Iran also waived the specific fees previously charged to refugees. Since 2015, 56 schools were jointly constructed by the Ministry of Education (MoE) and UNHCR, while land and other necessary running costs are covered by the Ministry. More than 500,000 Afghan children were enrolled in primary and secondary schools for the 2021 scholastic year, out of which 138,000 are undocumented Afghan children. Through the Literacy Movement Organization (LMO), refugees benefit from literacy classes, which enable over-aged and out-of-school children to re-join the education system. Since their arrival, the literacy rate of Afghans in Iran has increased from 6% to 65% according to the authorities.
- Refugees also have access to quality free-of-charge primary health care on par with nationals, at over 130 health posts in settlements and urban areas with a high number of refugees. In 2021, 120,000 of the most vulnerable refugees in Iran received support from UNHCR to access the Universal Public Health Insurance (UPHI), an initiative led by the Government of Iran – an increase of 20,000 from 2020. The UPHI provides refugees with access to a comprehensive insurance package covering secondary and tertiary health care, including medical expenses for hospitalization, para-clinical and out-patient services. Other refugees can access health insurance by paying the premium fee themselves.
- Furthermore, in Iran refugees benefit from vocational training in professional skills followed by the possibility of employment in a number of job categories, as well as support to establish home-based businesses. In 2020, 65% of refugees who received livelihoods support were women, increasing their ability to become self-reliant. Refugees can also open banks accounts, which further improves their financial inclusion.
- COVID-19 has impacted lives and livelihoods in Iran, particularly as the country faces economic challenges. The Government of Iran has ensured that refugees can receive free-of-charge COVID-19 testing in designated health centres. If refugees are enrolled in UPHI, they also have access to free COVID-related treatment and hospitalization, similar to nationals. In 2020, over 32,000 extremely vulnerable refugees received cash support covering a 2 to 3-month period, to address the negative economic impact of COVID-19. In line with the Government of Iran’s inclusive approach, refugees have been able to enjoy access to vaccinations for COVID-19. More vaccine support continues to be needed to ensure no one is left behind.
Islamic Republic of Pakistan
- Pakistan hosts 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees who arrived in Pakistan over the years and some as far back as 1979. Over 2021, Pakistan undertook an exercise to update the details of registered Afghan refugees as part of a country-wide campaign to renew Proof of Registration (PoR) cards. Refugees are being issued with biometric cards. The last large-scale verification of refugees in the country was undertaken 10 years ago. Known as DRIVE, or Documentation Renewal and Information Verification Exercise, it is a Government of Pakistan-led campaign run by the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), the Commissionerate for Afghan Refugees (CAR), and with the support of UNHCR. DRIVE will enhance protection and assistance for refugees by enabling them to continue to access critical services, such as health and education. The process will also provide the Government and UNHCR with current information on the refugee population, including vulnerabilities, skills and education levels to better inform the provision of services and assistance. This data will eventually also assist in the development of skills training and educational opportunities for refugees, as well as offering the potential to match specific skills with opportunities in Afghanistan to enable the sustainable reintegration of returnees in the future – contingent upon well-informed and voluntary decisions.
- Refugees enjoy access to Pakistan’s national education and healthcare systems, on a par with nationals. In the last decade there has been significant progress to support refugees access public schools and attain accredited education, which can further support their access to higher levels of education. UNHCR is providing support for host community schools and placing an emphasis on access to education by girls. Alternative Learning Pathways Centres and Home-Based Girls Classes have been supported to overcome the barriers for girls to access education.
- Since 2009, support to host communities has been channeled through the Refugee Affected and Hosting Areas (RAHA) programme. RAHA has benefitted more than 12.6 million individuals, including Afghan refugees and their Pakistani host communities. Through it, public facilities in refugee hosting areas have been supported which expands services’ ability to accommodate refugees. Other interventions are for livelihoods. In partnership with the Government’s National Vocational and Technical Training Commission (NAVTTC), UNHCR has enrolled 5,000 Afghan refugee and Pakistani youth in technical skills training programmes in technical and vocational institutes since 2015 to enable them to acquire marketable skills. This is boosting livelihoods opportunities and enhancing self-reliance.
- In the initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns, like in other countries, also affected refugees. The Government of Pakistan’s approach has been to include refugees in its COVID-19 vaccination campaign and UNHCR has supported the call for more vaccine support for Pakistan and Afghan refugees in the region.
Comprehensive portfolio of projects
Following the launch of the SSAR Support Platform in December 2019 at the first Global Refugee Forum, a comprehensive portfolio of projects was presented to key donors and other stakeholders at the High-Level Meeting convened on 6 July 2020 with the aim to:
- Channel additional investments into the national public service delivery systems in the Islamic Republics of Iran and Pakistan (education, healthcare, social protection, vocational skills development) to support inclusive policies of the Governments benefitting both host communities and refugees.
- Enhance capacity for voluntary return and sustainable reintegration in Afghanistan by leveraging humanitarian and development partnerships in the Priority Areas of Return and Reintegration (PARRs).
- Create conditions conducive to voluntary repatriation by i) supporting land distribution to returnees in Afghanistan, ii) investing in resilience and portable skills of refugees in host countries to enhance potential for reintegration, and iii) tailoring assistance to enable initial anchoring upon return.
The portfolio, which outlines areas where the international community can concretely support solutions, can be found on a dedicated website for the SSAR Support Platform at https://ssar-platform.org/.