On October 19, 2001, Iran agreed to build camps to accommodate new refugees fleeing US bombing and internal chaos in Afghanistan. This was the first piece of good news for relief workers concerned that Operation Enduring Freedom is accelerating the descent of Afghanistan’s decades-old refugee crisis into a humanitarian disaster of untold proportions.

Twenty-three years of unrelenting war, widespread human rights abuses and, more recently, acute drought have created devastating humanitarian conditions in Afghanistan. Since 1978, millions of Afghans have sought refuge in neighboring countries (2 million currently live in Pakistan and 1.5 million in Iran), while at least 900,000 were displaced from their homes within Afghanistan before September 11. An estimated 30,000 refugees live in India, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and other countries. Even before the current refugee movement, the neighboring governments were showing impatience with the large, intractable refugee populations in their countries. Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan closed their borders.

Inside Afghanistan, millions of Afghans rely on international food aid for survival. The economy, ruined by years of civil strife, suffered a further blow when the worst drought in 30 years caused crop failures that led hundreds of thousands of Afghans to leave their homes in search of food beginning in June 2000. In May 2001, the World Food Program warned that more than 1 million Afghans were facing famine conditions, and in September reported that in some areas, people were surviving by eating grass and locusts. Since the September 11 attacks, all international aid workers have withdrawn, leaving only a skeleton staff of local UN employees in place. On October 16, a US bomb destroyed a Red Cross warehouse, and on several occasions the Taliban have confiscated large quantities of food meant for hungry civilians. Under these conditions, and with the onset of winter, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees describes aid efforts during the bombing as a “race against the clock.” Thousands of Afghans could face death from starvation in the coming months.

Host Country Fatigue

Between 50,000 and 60,000 new refugees had managed to enter Pakistan by mid-October, according to UNHCR estimates, but the border remains officially closed, reflecting Pakistan’s long-standing backlash against Afghans in the country. From the late 1970s through the early 1990s, the international community lavished substantial assistance on Pakistan, the refugees and the mujahideen, but in recent years has significantly scaled back its assistance, leaving Pakistan to manage the refugees on its own in a faltering economy. The government blames refugees for unemployment among Pakistanis, increased crime and social problems such as drug use and prostitution. Before September 11, the government of Pakistan took the position that since the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan — which caused most “long-term” refugees to flee — has ended, refugees should return home. Further, the government claimed that the home areas of many long-term refugees were free of conflict, and that many Afghans who had entered Pakistan since mid-2000 were victims of drought, not refugees.

Relief assistance to refugees in Pakistan is currently hampered by deteriorating security conditions in and around Peshawar and Quetta. Violent demonstrations and a string of attacks on international and local relief agency offices have forced aid workers to curtail their activities, including surveying prospective areas for new refugee camps and border monitoring.

The Afghan refugees in Iran have also faced growing hostility and intolerance from their host country. Claiming that refugees take scarce jobs away from local people, Iranian officials have made it clear that they no longer welcome Afghans. Beginning in 1997, the government set several deadlines for refugees to leave the country, declined to register new arrivals from Afghanistan as refugees, attempted to round up and confine refugees to camps, and at times summarily deported them. Hostility toward Afghan refugees reached a new high in late 1998 and early 1999, when mobs attacked and in some cases killed Afghan refugees, demanding their deportation. Iran deported about 100,000 Afghans in 1999, and 82,000 more last year. Iran’s October 19 announcement is an overdue shift from these policies.

Food from the Sky

For displaced persons inside Afghanistan, the prospects for obtaining basic food aid, shelter and medical care are even bleaker. Most aid workers are gone. Operating conditions have been hampered by a communications blackout inside Afghanistan, with the Taliban banning aid workers from using satellite phones. Ground delivery of new supplies from outside Afghanistan has been hampered by the US air strikes; the danger posed to aid workers was highlighted on October 9, when a stray missile or bomb struck the UN de-mining office in Kabul, killing four local employees.

The Bush administration answered concerns about neglect of internally displaced persons with a $320 million aid package and food air drop campaign, unveiled with great fanfare. To a great extent, this aid package was a means of scoring political points. While food drops in Afghanistan are hardly the first example of politicized humanitarian aid, military and aid goals were linked to the point that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld fielded questions about food drops at Pentagon briefings.

Virtually all aid agencies view air drops as a last-ditch tactic for delivering humanitarian relief to isolated areas. Air drops are more expensive and usually less targeted to the neediest people than are other methods of food distribution. A certain percentage of food will become spoiled or unusable because of packaging that breaks on impact or gets lost, while the lack of distribution controls on the ground means that a certain percentage of food will not reach the intended recipients. Air drops also create problems of their own: civilians on the ground near drop zones can be injured by food falling from the sky, or aid may fall into mined areas, endangering people attempting to retrieve the aid. If air drop locations are few, the drops can trigger large-scale migration to the drop location, resulting in population overcrowding, water shortages and health problems that might not have existed otherwise. Social tensions between different local communities can also arise in drop areas. Finally, it is impossible to prevent aid from falling into the hands of Taliban officials.

Air drops are the only consistent way to deliver food inside Afghanistan as long as air strikes continue. But many relief agencies view an immediate moratorium on US bombing, allowing ground deliveries of food and supplies to internally displaced persons, as the only way to forestall a humanitarian catastrophe. For the long term, refugee populations in surrounding countries must be a central part of arrangements for a reconstructed post-war Afghanistan. The Afghan refugees’ deeply entrenched crisis has taken years to create, and will take more years to effectively resolve.

Much of this material was previously published in Middle East Report Online: Afghanistan’s Refugee Crisis and Aid Drops in Afghanistan on September 24, 2001 and October 10, 2001, respectively.

Location of Afghan Refugees (as of September 10, 2001)

Pakistan               2,000,000
Iran                     1,500,000
Russia                    100,000
Central Asian            29,000
Europe                     36,000
North America and    17,000
India                        13,000

Total                    3,695,000
IDPs                       900,000

Source: UN High Commissioner for Refugees, “Afghan Refugee Statistics”

Key Socio-Economic Indicators in Afghanistan

GDP per capita                           $178
Life expectancy, female              43.5 years
Life expectancy, male                 43 years
Malnourished                             70 percent
Under-five mortality                   257 per 1,000
Maternal mortality                      17 per 1,000
Low-weight births                       20 percent
Literacy, female                         21 percent
Literacy, male                            51 percent

Sources: World Health Organization, UNICEF, World Food Program

How to cite this article:

Margaret Emery, Hiram Ruiz "Descent into Disaster?," Middle East Report 221 (Winter 2001).

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