Afghan refugees: still in plight

The largely invisible suffering of Afghanistan’s internal refugees made a rare appearance in the US media Feb. 4 with a NY Times story and front-page (below-the-fold) photo. The article noted that eighteen people have died in the refugee camps outside Kabul since severe cold descended on the country two weeks ago. The most recent death was that of a new-brn boy at the Chaman-e-Babrak tent camp. Temperatures fall as low as 5 degrees F. at night. There are some 4,000 living in the two main camps outside Kabul, described by the Times as "homeless rural people who cannot be relocated to the countryside" and "landless poor from rural areas who have no homes to go back to." The Times did not emphasize that most of these rural areas continue to be controlled by local warlords who persecute and even force out their perceived ethnic enemies.

In addition to the 4,000 refugees, there are some 10,000 urban homeless in Kabul. The Times illustrates the kind of ugly class stratification that is emerging in "liberated" Afghanistan: "Meanwhile, scores of expensive private villas are going up around Kabul, some of them built by commanders and government officials on former government land, a sign of growing inequities."

Many of the refugees are recent returnees from camps in Pakistan and Iran. The Times notes: "Refugees are still being encouraged to return to Afghanistan for political reasons even though the country cannot lok after them, critics say."

In related news: The UN news agency IRIN reported Jan. 18 that the hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees still in Iran are excluded from education and other social services, and the government is increasingly moving to deport them. The Times of India reported Jan. 12 that some 3.5 million refugees have returned to Afghanistan since the "voluntary repatriation" program was laucnhed in 2002, but some 3 million remain in Pakistan and Iran and their fate will be uncertain when the UN’s program for repatriation assistance ends in March 2006.