Afghanistan has the dubious distinction of being one of the main global centers for sending out a never-ending stream of international refugees. Over the past few decades, millions of Afghans have been in constant transit over and across international borders as refugees and asylum seekers. It has one of the largest numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons in the world. As a result of decades of war and insecurity, millions of Afghans have been forced to seek refuge in neighboring countries and other far-off countries in the hopes of finding the barest necessities of life.
Pakistan and Iran are the two main countries where millions of Afghans have been living in for many years now. Pakistan has been home to up to 5 million Afghan refugees in different parts of the recent history with many more being seasonal refugees and in constant movement between the two countries.
Iran has been at the receiving end of more than 3 million Afghan refugees ever since the 1970s with more than 2 million still living in that country. In the late 1970s and with the start of a long period of political instability and economic destitution, hundreds of thousands have fled to European and North American countries as well with Australia increasingly becoming a favorite destination for Afghan refugees in recent years.
There was great hope and expectation that with the advent of the new period in the contemporary history of Afghanistan, the millions of refugees scattered throughout the world can return to their motherland and start a peaceful life anew. However, the continued instability, insecurity, widespread poverty and lack of economic opportunities and livelihoods have shattered these dreams and made the return of refugees impossible.
The flow of refugees returning to Afghanistan in the years after 2001 was significant and promising. The UNHCR, the United Nations' agency to deal with the issues of refugees implemented a relatively successful program of repatriation of refugees that included monetary and economic assistance and incentives to those families that repatriated to Afghanistan.
Tens of thousands of families returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan and Iran, all filled with the hopes of a better and prosperous future, one better than what they went through during their difficult years in exile. What has happened in reality is that the hardships, poverty, destitution and denial of justice continue to hurt these families, making them yearn for the better days they had as refugees.
The government of Afghanistan and the international community engaged in Afghanistan have not been able to provide these repatriated families with means and assistance needed to provide economically for themselves and their families. Since 2007, however, the return of refugees to Afghanistan from Pakistan and Iran has significantly decreased, being limited to only those families who have the financial means of supporting themselves once they are back in Afghanistan.
Now and after close to ten years of the emergence of the new Afghanistan, not only many of the repatriated families but also many more continue to take on the dangers of illegally crossing borders and seeking refuge in other countries. It is as if the fate of Afghanistan and its people is intimately intertwined with constant migration and exile.
Authorities in Australia and Indonesia routinely capture boats full of Afghan families who want to illegally cross into Australian territory. The tale of such Afghan families is a tale of sorrow and gloom; families who desperately sell whatever they have to raise the money needed for the illegal and dangerous sojourn into the unknown.
If any time during the day, you visit many of the hundreds of so-called "hotels" – which are in fact compound buildings renting out rooms to traveling people – which dot the skyline in the western parts of Kabul, you can see tens of families everyday who are awaiting the start of their difficult and dangerous journeys to either Australia or Europe. Among these families you find old men and women, children and infants, newly-wed couples and even youngsters as young as 15 and 16.
The families have sold their entire lives and even borrowed large sums to finance a dangerous voyage; whether they would reach the shores of Europe or Australia depends on the generosity of their traffickers and their sheer luck. Often when these families do indeed reach the European or Australian territories, they have to spend months or possibly years in refugee camps and wait for their applications to be processed. No one can be sure if they will win the right of living in their dream lands.
Having your refugee status applications accepted and settling down in the European and Australian cities is often not the end of hardship and pain for these families. When they finally finish with the hassles and headaches of obtaining the refugee status, these Afghan families wake up to the reality of living in a stranger and unknown country, culture and society.
They soon realize that bread, butter and water are indeed not the only necessities in life. Although their economic and financial needs might be taken care of by government assistance, many of these families find it difficult to adapt themselves to the new environment. Many of them go into depression unable to cope with a society and culture that they see as alien and cold. For the Afghan families who used to live among relatives with much inter-familial interaction and strong bonds of love and affection, living in a stranger country, where they know no one or at best very few, turns out to be incredibly difficult.
In a country where the rage of war, insecurity, poverty, destitution and lack of economic and job opportunities continue to plague millions of people, many more of such families will be forced to tread the dangerous paths towards exile in other unknown lands. If the war and poverty, as the two foremost drivers of destitution, are not contained, the problems would multiply and many more families would seek refuge elsewhere in the coming years.
The government of Afghanistan's Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation Affairs finds itself unable to cope with the severity and magnitude of the problem. The long-term solution lies in putting an end to a war that has caused so much chaos and destruction for the past many decades and then providing greater means for a dignified life for these families. In the meantime, the government has the responsibility of providing care and assistance to the repatriating families and those have been internally displaced as a result of war in the southern and eastern parts of the country.