By Lisa Anderson
According to the UNHCR’s Global Trends Report released this week, Afghanistan remains the world’s biggest source of refugees who have left their homeland.
Best-selling Afghan novelist Khaled Hosseini was once one of them and the experience changed the trajectory of his life.
Speaking to journalists this week at the United Nations at an event to honor World Refugee Day, he emphasised the importance of women’s rights in the country and of jobs for returnees.
“Seeking asylum myself, I always felt a special affinity with refugees,” said Hosseini, 47. “I, too, had been uprooted, lost family members to war, lost property,” he said.
In 1980, Hosseini’s diplomat father sought political asylum for the family in the United States and resettled in California.
Afghanistan is struggling to recover from more than three decades of conflict, with violence still raging in much of the country.
Hosseini said his experience as a refugee has informed his work as a goodwill envoy for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees starting in 2006, sparked his establishment in 2007 of a foundation bearing his name to benefit Afghan women, children and refugees and inspired the writing of the two novels – “The Kite Runner” in 2003 and “A Thousand Splendid Suns” in 2007.
According to the UNHCR’s 2011 Global Trends Report, of the world’s 15.2 million people who have sought refuge outside their country of birth, Afghanistan produced the largest number at 2.7 million.
About 1 million of them are in Iran and 1.7 million in Pakistan. In addition, there are over 400,000 internally displaced people within the country.
With American-led coalition troops withdrawing after more than a decade, the country “finds itself at a crossroads,” said Hosseini, who is a medical doctor by training.
He noted that some 6 million Afghans have returned home in recent years, representing “the largest repatriation in the history” of the UNHCR.
“This was the equivalent of every person from the Netherlands returning to Ireland over four years,” he said.
Going home to a war-ravaged nation that ranks very low on the Human Development Index has not been easy, either for the country or for its returning citizens, many of whom grew up in refugee camps and can’t speak Pashto, Farsi or any other language of Afghanistan, he said.
The country also is ill-equipped to absorb them, he said, noting more than a third of Afghans live below the poverty line. On all of his recent trips to Afghanistan he found villages suffering from a lack of clean water, adequate sanitation, schools and shelter. In some, village elders told him “it was not unusual to lose children every winter due to exposure.”
One key is to provide jobs for returning Afghans, a challenge that, to date, large-scale development projects have not produced at the local level, Hosseini said.
“We need to create an environment in Afghanistan that is conducive to (returning) refugees remaining in Afghanistan,” he said.
Another key is to guarantee women equal rights, he said. “I feel this is a paramount issue for Afghanistan to have any future,” said Hosseini, who incorporated that theme into his second novel. “Women have to be able to practice their legal rights without fear of retribution.”
But women’s rights in the country remain extremely precarious, not just with the question of what influence the Taliban will have in Afghanistan’s future but in terms of the attitude of the present government.
The Afghan justice minister, for example, recently said shelters for abused and exploited women encouraged “immorality and prostitution,” according to the New York Times citing news reports.
Sitting beside Hosseini, Udo Janz, director of the UNHCR office in New York, noted that the U.N. office in Kabul issued a statement this week supporting “the critical role that women’s protection shelters play in providing support and safety for vulnerable Afghan women and girls, especially victims of domestic violence and abuse.”