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Humanitarian Crises Brewing In Afghanistan

An Afghan family waits for help from the government and aid organizations in the northern Takhar province after fleeing their homes in neighboring Kunduz province in October.
An Afghan family waits for help from the government and aid organizations in the northern Takhar province after fleeing their homes in neighboring Kunduz province in October.

A humanitarian disaster marked by masses of returning refugees, internal displacement, insecurity, poverty, economic decline, and narcotics is looming in Afghanistan.

As the international community stands idly by, a storm gathers as multiple crises imperil the lives, livelihoods, and well-being of Afghanistan’s estimated 30 million people, jeopardizing the country’s hard-fought gains of the past 15 years.

While Afghans continue to return from Pakistan in droves, a quieter and largely unnoticed crisis is brewing along the border with Iran. In the past month alone, 41,141 undocumented Afghans have returned from Iran (many of whom were previously deported), bringing the year-to-date total to 371,623 as of the end of October.

These numbers are not surprising, considering Iran’s systemic exploitation of Afghan refugees, particularly the unregistered. Most of this group does not have basic rights, with only limited access to employment and education, and are frequent targets of police harassment and abuse.

In an interview for my recent research piece, an Afghan woman who left Iran for Europe said, “There are a lot of police that are jailing Afghans. They intimidate, harass, and cause many problems for Afghans, especially if the Afghans do not have a refugee card or identity card. The police won't let Afghans work or even look for work; they are constantly badgering them.”

Others, like those described by Nasir Haidarzai and Joe Lowry of the International Organization For Migration (IOM), return with a heroin addiction. “It's widely reported that they get paid in heroin rather than cash,” reads their recent feature. “They soon get addicted, and when they are too far gone to work they are rounded up and put on buses. After a while, they try to come back. It's cyclical.”

Stories like these are pervasive, and for every documented case there are many more affected in silent struggle. The unregistered status continues to plague returnees long after their re-arrival to Afghanistan, as this limits their access to domestic support services. UNHCR limits its assistance to registered Afghans, and although IOM provides some aid to unregistered returnees, this only extends to the most vulnerable cases -- around 20 percent overall. For those relative few who qualify for this support, the offering is quite limited, covering only transportation, transit and health services benefits. All told, roughly 600,000 undocumented Afghans have returned from Pakistan and Iran over the course of this year alone, and these have been left mostly to fend for themselves.

With Afghanistan’s harsh winter approaching, returning Afghans will join the roughly 1.2 million internally displaced Afghans -- or “IDPs” -- a number that has more than doubled since 2012. Earlier this year, Amnesty International reported on the squalid living conditions for IDPs and the ever-increasing competition for the meager resources as their numbers increase. And the candle is burning on both ends, with international donor money drying up as the world has largely moved on from Afghanistan. These factors further strain an existing crisis situation: according to a World Food Programme (WFP) 2014 survey, there are already 9.3 million “food insecure” Afghans, a number that has surely increased in recent years.

In parallel, the European Union and Afghanistan have signed the highly controversial Joint Way Forward agreement, which will allow the EU to deport thousands of rejected asylum seekers and force further involuntary returns. It goes without saying that this will only exacerbate an already desperate situation.

Hope Lost

The hopelessness of the life waiting for Afghan returnees and IDPs seems to have escaped the consciousness of the international community, particularly the EU, Pakistan, and Iran. In addition to a lack of resources, the security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated significantly since the drawdown of foreign forces.

Ben Anderson, author and journalist, recently returned from Afghanistan and said:

“All the places I've spent years watching the Brits, Americans, and Afghans fight hard for -- places like Sangin, Gereshk, and Marjah [in the southern Helmand Province], are now back in Taliban hands. Morale is very low among the good leaders and commanders I know. They don’t feel like they are getting the support they need, and they seemed to accept the resurgence of the Taliban as inevitable. A senior policeman even told me the people in Helmand are happier under the Taliban. That's a pretty stark sign of how badly the whole project has failed.”

A Volatile Cocktail

Eroding morale is unsurprising in a war-torn country where momentum appears to be negative. Places like Helmand and northern province of Kunduz have continuously been caught in the crossfire between the Taliban and government forces. More troubling still is that the Taliban continue to consolidate gains -- they now claim control of 97 districts, a significant increase over last year, as civilian casualties mount.

The economy continues to reel as the country grapples with spiraling unemployment following the drawdown of foreign forces and dwindling foreign aid. The situation appears bleak, a volatile cocktail of deteriorating security, lack of basic resources, and abject poverty. In such circumstances, concerns naturally heighten around the vulnerability of the displaced and disaffected to the draw of insurgent groups -- particularly young males, who may seek refuge with Taliban or Islamic State militants. Add to this the odd U.S. military action, such as the recent airstrike that killed 30 civilians near Kunduz -- many women and children among them -- and the risk of radicalization only increases.

Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch summed things up neatly at a recent Afghan Women’s event in London, saying, “Donors continue giving money, but they stopped caring long ago.”

This is a shared sentiment within the Afghan community, which remains in desperate need of international support.

Barin Sultani Haymon is a London-based researcher. Her work has been focused on social and economic issues in Afghanistan and among the Afghan diaspora in the West. These views are the author's alone and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.