In-depth: The Long Journey Home: an IRIN In-Depth on the challenge of refugee return and reintegration
AFGHANISTAN: Returns steady, reintegration still a challenge
A UNHCR worker helps an Afghan refugee with the repatriation process
NAIROBI, 1 February 2005 (IRIN) - Sitting in a tiny tent overlooking an endless, dusty plain, Samandar Ali and his family are happy that they are back home after several years of life in exile. Even though the eight-member family does not have enough food or proper shelter to survive the cold winter, they are optimistic that life will change for the better.
"Drought is continuing and there is no work while armed men are still in power. But we are hopeful that it will get better," Ali, who returned from neighbouring Pakistan in September 2004, told IRIN in Qaisar district of the northwestern province of Faryab.
While insecurity and poverty continue to be the main challenge the returnees face at home, Afghan refugees continue to return as they hear that millions of dollars have been pledged by international donors to assist their war-ravaged country.
Three years after the fall of the Taliban, over three million Afghans have returned from Pakistan and Iran. In 2004 alone, around 780,000 refugees came back from these countries. But there is a long way to go. There are at least three million Afghans still in exile, many waiting for more visible signs of development and stability before returning.
Many of those refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) who have returned home in the last two years complain of a lack of assistance. Unemployment and the lack of public services, including health clinics, schools and roads, are the chief concerns.
"The major and only change in Afghanistan is the newly elected government and everyone hopes that it will bring a change in our lives," Ali said.
|Women such as these returnees from northern Badakhshan can an especially vulnerable category if they are single parent households
For the millions of Afghans who have returned home since the end of the Taliban era in late 2001, life is hard and reintegration is slow. Although undeniable progress has been made in many sectors, returnees are often more destitute than the local population.
Sahargul, a former school teacher, said that despite the large number of NGOs and UN agencies working in Faryab province, many returnees like himself had not been prioritised. "Those armed groups who have grabbed our land and made us displaced are now more important for the UN than the poor returnees," the father of four told IRIN as he and his children worked on rebuilding their ruined house.
Sahargul pointed to the ex-combatants, who he said were receiving preferential treatment from the UN and other agencies, rather than returnees. He said his children missed school since they returned to their village of Qaisar as there was no girls' school in the entire village. Sahar's children had studied up to Grade Four in the city of Peshawar in Pakistan. "For us, the return means losing my job and my children's education," he noted dismally.
But some others have managed to earn a living and reintegrate. Bibi Fatema, a 40-year-old widow, sensing a gap in the market, opened a small health centre for women in the Dash Barchi district of Kabul after she obtained a US $200 loan from a local micro finance agency.
"My income is more than I earned in Iran. Here, women do not go to male nurses for injections or other first aid services; therefore, I have many customers," the mother of three told IRIN.
Fatema had attended a nursing training course in Iran and now she earns $150 per month. "I pay half of my earnings for house rent and the remainder helps us to survive," she noted.
Ruud Lubbers, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, believes successful reintegration requires long-term development assistance.
"I think the work of the HCR [The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] is not just transporting people home. It is also being with them for a while and trying to convince others to improve life and live together," Lubbers told IRIN as he visited a return area north of the capital, Kabul, in mid-January.
|People like Gul's family, as hundreds of thousands in the north-eastern province of Faryab, will face an acute food crisis if immediate assistance is not provided
UNHCR and its partners have rebuilt some 170,000 houses across Afghanistan since 2002 and some 8,000 wells or water points have been established in areas of high return.
Despite this, he was critical of the pace of rural infrastructure development. "While returnees are eager to restart their lives they need water projects, dams and therefore it [development] has to go a bit faster," the high commissioner noted.
Habibullah Qaderi, the former chief adviser for the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation, believes that not much has been done for returnees by donor countries. "We appeal for more assistance and more money for the return programme because we should think of the sustainability of return and reintegration which is the right of every returnee," he told IRIN.
"We should not be just dumping the people in. We still have more than three million Afghans still in neighbouring countries," Qaderi noted.
Slow IDP returns in 2004
After another year of drought and crop failure in 2004, more than a third of the Afghan population remains dependent on food aid. Among them are at least 167,000 IDPs, most of them living in camps in the south and the west of the country. Persistent drought, a lack of infrastructure and slow reconstruction have considerably slowed down the pace of return during 2004. Only 17,000 IDPs have made the journey home since the beginning of the year.
Unable or unwilling to return to their homes, the remaining IDPs, most of them drought-affected nomadic Kuchis, are now in need of long-term solutions that go beyond humanitarian assistance.
For the estimated 440,000 IDPs who returned home during 2002 and 2003, the main need is for a sustained effort by the international community to deliver on its reconstruction pledge in order to further their reintegration.
With drought conditions continuing in the areas these IDPs came from, some destitute families prefer to settle locally rather than return to their places of origin.
Those that IRIN interviewed in the southern Zhari Dasht IDP camp said they could manage to earn a living or receive some assistance while remaining in the bleak IDP camp.
In addition to drought, one of the main challenges that IDPs face after return is land grabbing and continuous harassment by local militias. In Faryab, while many have been able to regain their land and houses and managed to secure some level of sustainable livelihood, others have found that their homes have either been destroyed or are now occupied by others.
In January 2005, hundreds of people, including women and children, had to flee to the mountains after their houses were entirely looted by armed local militia groups in Kohistan district of Faryab.
"We were told that these commanders were no longer in power, but that was not true," Fazal Rabi, a returnee in the northern city of Baghlan, told IRIN. He said he had harvested a good crop of wheat, but had been forced to give a third of it to a local commander as compulsory taxation.