Returns to Afghanistan

Returns to Afghanistan

UNHCR supports Afghans who find themselves returning to an uncertain future in their homeland.

28 May 2024

©UNHCR/Oxygen Empire Media Production

Afghanistan today

With active conflict largely ceased in Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover in 2021, the country is facing new challenges on its journey ahead after more than four decades of conflict. Nine in ten Afghans live in poverty, unemployment is soaring, and public services are insufficient to meet the needs of the people of Afghanistan. Women and girls have been all but erased from public life following a series of edicts issued restricting their social, economic and political rights in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover.

As a result, UNHCR maintains a non-return advisory for Afghan nationals in their countries of asylum. Any returns to Afghanistan must be voluntary in nature.

Returns from Pakistan

In October 2023, the Government of Pakistan announced a new ‘Illegal Foreigners’ Repatriation Plan’, unveiling a scheme to expel all undocumented foreigners. The plan has disproportionately affected Afghans, many of whom have lived abroad for decades.

Cumulative returns from Pakistan to Afghanistan

In 2023, almost half a million Afghans returned from Pakistan. Approximately 49% of those who returned were women or girls. Of the returnees, 28,000 were deported. However, the vast majority of the others should be considered as coerced and pressured. In protection interviews conducted by UNHCR at the border, Afghan returnees reported facing heightened risks of deportation, arrest, night raids, verbal and physical harassment, and being asked to leave Pakistan.

Problems experienced in Pakistan

Percentage of households who reported encountering problems

Challenges faced by returnees

With Afghanistan struggling to overcome the effects of decades of conflict, leading also to economic hardship and poor public services, uncertain futures await not only those who return but entire communities. Areas with large numbers of returns face high demands on limited local resources, placing strenuous demands on public services and local economies. UNHCR has been monitoring return trends and the situation facing returnees inside Afghanistan since 2002, allowing for the delivery of targeted assistance in areas experiencing high volumes of returns. Gender data on returns is available from 2018 and onwards. Prior to the Taliban takeover in 2021 more women than men chose to return, with 53%-54% of returnees being female. While the share of women has been lower since 2021, the proportion of women and girls returning remains high, and on average for the six years recorded 51% of returnees are female.

Cumulative returns of Afghans by province | 2002-2023

Once back in Afghanistan, families will need to navigate a landscape where pervasive poverty and soaring unemployment pose significant hurdles to reintegration, coupled with impacts of climate change and extended periods of drought, and gaps in essential public services – including education, healthcare, and safe drinking water. Gaps in services has led to Afghanistan having one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world in 2023, while rural communities increasingly face rising levels of water scarcity fuelled by severe droughts. High rates of out-of-school children are being recorded as families deprioritize education to other needs in the face of poverty, and an estimated three out of four recent returnee households in rural areas do not have adequate housing.

Barriers faced by women and girls

Restrictions placed by the de facto authorities (DfA) on women’s and girls’ participation in public life also contribute to their poor levels of information and access to essential public services, including education, healthcare, and employment as well as social support networks within the community, and have further compounded a rapid deterioration of their mental health situation. Over the past six years, 51% of all returnees recorded have been women and girls.

©UNHCR/Oxygen Empire Media Production

Many of the areas to which Afghans are returning are already hosting large numbers of internally displaced populations.

Location of returnees and internally displaced people

It is important to remember that large numbers of Afghans are also forcibly returned from Iran. UNHCR has monitored deportations from Iran since 2015. It is estimated that 3.8 million* Afghans have been deported from Iran since 2015. An estimated 4.5 million Afghans remain in Iran.

Afghans deported from Iran | 2015-2023

How UNHCR helps those returning

Robust data analysis and new technology

Humanitarian responders have frequently carried out assessments targeting returning Afghans to better understand the needs faced by families on their return. Thanks to these surveys, we know that returnees make use of social networks and assets acquired while abroad to assist their return and reintegration process.

According to a desk review of currently available data on the most recent wave of returns in 2023, they are more likely to be families, with only 0.6% of crossings from Pakistan having been single individuals. Returnees also tend to be younger, with 56% under the age of 15. This means that most families returning now have more dependents than working members. Moreover, 94% have no education and 82% are low-skilled workers.

This is echoed in 2023 UNHCR’s Socio-Economic and Protection Survey, revealing that returnees have lower employment rates than those that never left the country, with women the most affected by unemployment. Of returnees who are in employment the vast majority are male.

Gender breakdown of employed people

Interviews with Afghans returning from Pakistan at the border in 2023 have also disclosed high education gaps, with 70% of heads of households having no education. Moreover, 87% report to need housing assistance, 80% financial assistance, and 71% food aid in their final destinations in Afghanistan.

Needs upon arrival in final destination

Percentage of households interviewed

Interviews also reveal that 29% are single-woman headed households.

Monitoring media on return movements

Keeping an eye on the media is important when working with returns as anti-Afghan sentiment in a country or from a government can be an indication of deteriorating conditions and potential for premature returns. In an effort to examine ways to measure the impact of words, UNHCR monitors social media to track rates of hateful discourse and the prominence of such statements on social media.

Technology advances has also allowed UNHCR to monitor coverage of Afghanistan in traditional media. The graph below shows articles published in English speaking media relating to Afghan Returns from the announcement of and during the first phase of Pakistan’s Illegal Foreigners Repatriation Plan.

Using language models, the content of articles are classified into eight main categories, and counted over time.

In the initial days after the launch of the plan we see many articles categorising Afghans as illegal despite their many years of tolerated stay in the country, as well as attempts to link refugees to terrorist groups in Pakistan. This was the narrative employed by the Pakistani government launching the plan and subsequently seen in the media coverage.

Towards the end of October we see two smaller spikes one in awareness raising, caused by an Afghan cricketer speaking out against the deportations, and one related to the Taliban, when the de facto authorities officially plea for host countries not to deport Afghans.

With the official start of deportations, the story is mostly covered as a humanitarian catastrophe unfolding. A number of NGOs make statements contributing to this narrative.

There is another spike toward the end of the year in coverage on Afghans in Iran as Iran bans Afghan merchants from operating in bazaars sparking fear of similar sentiment in Iran.

How AI plays a role in better understanding the needs of returning Afghans

During the most recent returns from Pakistan, UNHCR piloted a tool that captured needs and characteristics of households from structured conversations with returnee families. Survey outputs include descriptive and thematic analyses of the conversations, allowing UNHCR to better understand the experience of those returning and how to best help. This analysis is automatic, which means that when returns increase, UNHCR has an analysis of the needs of returning Afghans available within minimal time. This analysis supports decision making on how to meet these needs for more efficient service delivery. UNHCR also employs AI tools in capturing biographic details from documents reducing the time spent in registration lines.

Common themes from discussions with returnees

Afghan returnees are in urgent need of help as their return to precarious futures poses daunting challenges. For women and girls, returns are especially difficult, as they return to an environment wherein their basic rights are being systematically eroded. Their return to Afghanistan places them in precariously vulnerable situations as they lose access to education beyond primary school, face critical barriers to employment and freedom of movement, and as these restrictions also increase risks of gender-based violence and other protection concerns.

Inside Afghanistan, UNHCR is working as part of the Border Consortium to respond to the immediate needs of those returning. Our teams continue to work around the clock to support those arriving, to set up centres where families can rest, to provide access to healthcare, essential protection services and other emergency aid. Inland, our teams are also working in areas that welcome returnees home, where we invest in building resilient communities and durable solutions.

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*3.8 million refers to the cumulative number of deportations. Same individuals may have been deported more than once.

Pictures attribution: ©UNHCR/Oxygen Empire Media Production

The boundaries and names shown and the designations used on this map do not imply official endorsement or acceptance by the United Nations. Dotted line represents approximately the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir agreed upon by India and Pakistan. The final status of Jammu and Kashmir has not yet been agreed upon by the parties.