Since the first refugees began to flee Afghanistan following the 1978 communist coup, with massive outflows after the Soviet invasion 20 months later, between one-quarter and one-third of the nation's 15 to 17 million people has left.
As the bitter war drags on, so does the seepage of asylum-seekers. Although figures vary, international relief sources now estimate that between 4 and 5 million Afghan exiles are living in Pakistan, Iran, and elsewhere.
Roughly 2.5 to 3 million have fled to Pakistan's rugged northwest and Baluchistan province. As many as 2 million, according to a recent World Food Program survey, may have crossed into Iran. Thousands of others, mainly educated and skilled Afghans, have left for the Middle East, India, Western Europe, and the United States.
Even during the early stages of the war, certain analysts referred to these enforced departures as a deliberate form of ''migratory genocide.'' Now, with the Soviet occupation soon to enter its fifth year, it is apparent this has become a principal method to rid the country of opposition.
This continued depopulation of Afghanistan will likely favor the Soviets in the long run. It threatens to undermine the fighting capability of the resistance. Also, the expanding concentration of refugees in Pakistan and Iran could eventually develop into significant destabilizing factors in those countries.
Furthermore, ''it is forcing rural people into the cities where they can be better controlled by the government,'' says Prof. Sayed Madjrooh of the Afghan Information Center in Peshawar, Pakistan, a highly respected resistance organization providing nonpartisan reports on the war.
The population of Kabul, for example, has more than doubled since the 1978 coup to more than 1.5 million. While a considerable proportion of these ''internal refugees'' are pro-communist supporters who have fled the wrath of rebels, many are ordinary countryfolk whose homes have been destroyed.
As the world's largest group of refugees,the Afghan community in Pakistan has received an exceptional, and admirable, degree of international concern. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other relief organizations now estimate total annual refugee assistance at almost $500 million. Of this, the Pakistan government claims to contribute nearly half.
But unlike those in Pakistan, refugees in Iran have been unable to benefit from international assistance. Constant efforts by the UNHCR and other similar organizations to reach an aid agreement with the Tehran government so far have proved fruitless. Denied outside support or protection, the refugees are reportedly subjected to miserable living conditions, discrimination, and forced repatriations.
The worst relief problem, however, lies within Afghanistan itself. Only a handful of European, American, and expatriate Afghan organizations have sought to dispatch clandestine humanitarian aid to the war zones. These include the US-Afghanistan Relief Committee, the Dignity of Man Foundation, and Afrane.
Many refugees were poor before the Soviet invasion, but the war has aggravated their situation. Resistance leaders are also beginning to realize that they must offer more than just the ability of the people to defend themselves.
Groups already providing aid to the ''inside'' argue that such assistance will slow down the Soviet Union's ''migratory genocide.''
''We feel that providing too much assistance on the outside will only contribute toward attracting more refugees. By helping people at home, you are giving them a chance to stay on despite the pressures of war,'' said Dr. Claude Malhuret, director of the Paris-based Medecins Sans Frontieres, a medical organization working in Afghanistan.