SEATTLE — The striking green eyes of an Afghan girl pictured by Steve McCurry in a 1985 National Geographic cover became the symbol of a humanitarian crisis that is still ongoing. Sharbat Gula was twelve years old when the photographer captured her, now iconic, portrait at a relief camp in Pakistan. Thirty-one years later, she was arrested and deported from Pakistan back to her home country. She is one of millions of Afghan refugees deported back to their home country.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 created over 6 million refugees who fled to neighboring Pakistan and Iran. Most of them were repatriated to Afghanistan between 2002 and 2015. The war against the Taliban is still raging and has created millions more displaced persons.
Today, one and a half million documented refugees remain in Pakistan and 950,000 in Iran. An additional 1 million undocumented refugees are estimated to live in Pakistan and two million in Iran. Afghanistan remains the second biggest refugee producing country in the world, after losing its first place to Syria in 2014.
Pakistan has been involved in a long-standing feud with India over the Kashmir region. Back in the 80’s, it welcomed the Afghan refugees with open arms in an attempt to shift Afghanistan’s foreign policy in its favor. The Afghan government has been traditionally on good terms with India.
Kabul refused to take part in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation Summit in Islamabad this year. The Pakistani government interpreted this an Indian ploy to isolate Pakistan. Policymakers in Islamabad believe the Afghan government has grown hostile in recent years, so they are using the millions of Afghans refugees to pressure their government.
Refugees in Peshwar are facing police harassment from Pakistani officials, and growing anti-Afghan rhetoric from politicians. A hashtag campaign has also been sparked, according to an Afghan student at the Peshwar University; #KickOutAfghans, #AfghanRefugeesRetreat.
The government announced that Proof of Registration cards will be invalid from December 31, effectively deporting millions of Afghan refugees. Such deadlines have been extended or ignored in the past, but the government has forced banks to close refugees’ accounts and telecommunications providers to disable their SIM cards, indicating that this time they are serious. More refugees left Pakistan this past August than in the entire year. The UNCHR estimates that 220,000 documented and 400,000 undocumented migrants will have been repatriated by the end of 2016.
The situation in Iran is also deteriorating. The authorities have allowed only a third of the three million Afghan refugees to claim asylum and the rest are not registered with the United Nations. Those born in the country are afforded U.N.-refugee status but are not granted all their citizen rights.
Human Rights Watch and other organizations have accused Iran of severe mistreatment of the refugees. The report includes physical abuse by security forces, detention in unsanitary and inhumane conditions, forced labor and forced the separation of families. In late 2015, it was revealed that Iran was forcing Afghan refugees to fight in Syria by threatening them with deportation.
More than 250,000 Afghans have left Iran this year, according to the International Migration Organization.
The European Union signed a deal in October to deport an unlimited number of Afghan refugees. Almost 150,000 Afghan refugees applied for asylum in European countries in 2015, the International Migration Organization reports.
Afghanistan is entrenched in a bloody war with the Taliban and emerging IS militants. Many Afghans are scared to return home. The country’s effort to handle the one and a half million refugees who will return home by the end of the year will put a severe strain on its already ill-performing economy.
It will receive help from the UNCHR and the IMO. But the main problem is government corruption, which has led to the loss of millions of dollars of development and aid funds. The President has said that the country will be “incomplete” until the refugees’ return. In order to welcome them to a home that is not falling apart, he has a long struggle ahead.
– Eliza Gkritsi