Afghans Beginning to Flee Their Country?

In a tiny flat they have rented in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s southwestern province of Balochistan, bordering Afghanistan, Zarnab Bibi and her husband Aziz Khan* wait patiently for the phone to ring.

“We are hoping to hear from an agent we have paid to take us and our four children to Thailand and then maybe onto Australia,” Khan said.

The family left their home in Afghanistan’s conflict-ridden Kandahar Province about a month ago, crossing into Pakistan illegally via a mountain pass. They spoke of a long walk on foot and said they spent all their savings on the journey. They knew further travel overseas would also be illegal, but Bibi explained: “We really have no choice given the situation in Afghanistan.”

They feared a resurgence of the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan for five years before it was overthrown in 2001 by international forces that are now gradually withdrawing from the country.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says the number of people fleeing Afghanistan has dropped significantly in the past decade, since the government of Hamid Karzai took control of the country. But at the same time there are signs of a recent increase in the number of Afghans leaving for Pakistan, a trend which would complicate efforts by Afghanistan and its international partners to sustainably bring home refugees already outside the country.

More conflict and uncertainty

In the Kurram Agency, one of seven tribal areas that share a frontier with Afghanistan, Moazzam Toor told IRIN from his village in the Tirah Valley that the number of refugees from Afghanistan “had definitely increased in the last few months, because they are worried about the future at home.” He said many of the refugees were destitute, and had headed for Peshawar or other big cities in search of opportunities to earn income.

“Some do not even have shoes on their feet, and walk in leather tied with straps.”

The UN says the rise and spread of the conflict in 2011 has led to a significant increase in displacement, with the number of people displaced within the country estimated to have risen to half a million by year-end. But tracking displacements outside the country has proven difficult.

“Pakistan and Afghanistan share a long and porous border, where hundreds of thousands of people cross the border back and forth daily for different reasons, which could be related to business, education or medical reasons,” said Duniya Aslam Khan, spokesperson for UNHCR in Pakistan. “Not every Afghan crossing the border into Pakistan is a refugee.”

According to media reports, the prime minister of Pakistan told UN High Commissioner for Afghan Refugees Antonio Guterres on a recent visit that 30-40,000 Afghans crossed the border annually and that Pakistan needs international help to tackle the refugee situation. But Khan said the number of registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan remained 1.7 million and authorities in Peshawar said they had no official information on the arrival of new refugees into the country.

An official at the government commissionerate for Afghan refugees in Peshawar, who asked not to be named, said the number of Afghans crossing over had increased since mid-2011.

“Most are economic [migrants], and also [refugees] worried about instability in Afghanistan. They mainly live with other Afghans or in rented homes. We are not permitted to give figures, and the numbers are hard to ascertain anyway.”

Border residents say tensions with Islamabad have bolstered growing uncertainty in Afghanistan, amid fears that Pakistan - whose intelligence service allegedly supports the Taliban - is fomenting trouble for its neighbor.

Zarnab has a college education but recalls the days under the Taliban, before 2001, when her daughters were not allowed to go to school.

“I am scared for the future of my two teenage daughters if the Taliban make a return, as this could happen given that the Pakistan government wants it and the militants are now talking to the US officials,” she said, referring to peace talks under way between the US, Afghanistan and the Taliban.


Pakistan is listed as “a source, transit, and destination country” for trafficked persons, according to the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons report for 2011.

“There are people everywhere in Quetta and other cities involved in getting people out of the country illegally, in exchange for money,” Farid Ahmed, coordinator for the autonomous Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), told IRIN. “Many from Afghanistan also come into Pakistan to make use of these agents.”

HRCP conducted a study in 2009, recording thousands of cases of human trafficking through Quetta from 2005 to 2008, including cases involving Afghans who had set out from Kabul.

*Not their real names

(IRIN provides humanitarian news and analysis as a service for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. IRIN’s reports do not necessarily reflect the stance of the UN itself. For more, visit IRIN's in-depth: From pillar to post – the plight of Afghans abroad)