Interview with Refugees International

As the international community marks World Refugee Day on Friday, Afghans who went home after the fall of the Taliban in November 2001 are happy to be back and optimistic about their future, but struggling to find work and make a living. In an interview with IRIN from the Afghan capital, Kabul, Larry Thompson, the director of advocacy for the US-based NGO, Refugees International, called for sustained aid for the country if its people were to have any hope for a safer future. Although numbers vary, there are still well over 1.2 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, while in neighbouring Iran, government estimates put the figure there at 1.9 million.

QUESTION: How would you describe the status of Afghan refugees who have returned to their homeland?

ANSWER: I am now in Afghanistan and have talked to many returned refugees on this and during former visits. Most are happy to be home. UNHCR and other aid agencies met most of their immediate needs for food, shelter, and other assistance. However, many returnees have dismal prospects for making a living. Many returnees in the city are unemployed, and many in the countryside can barely survive on their land. The returnees need continued assistance to enhance their economic viability and coping mechanisms.

Q: Are they able to return to their places of origin? UNHCR statistics indicate that a huge majority returned to the capital, Kabul, and Nangarhar Province in the east?

A: Everybody was surprised that such a large percentage - about 40 percent if I recall correctly - of refugees chose to return to Kabul. This perhaps reflects that many of the returnees were accustomed to urban living in Karachi and Peshawar in Pakistan, [the Iranian capital,] Tehran, and other cities in both countries. Security conditions and drought in southern Afghanistan have prevented many refugees from returning, while in most, but not all, of northern Afghanistan security conditions have been better.

Q: How well are they integrating back into society given the impression that reconstruction and development work has been slow?

A: I am most familiar with refugees and displaced persons who have returned to rural areas. In most of the country, they have been fortunate, because the drought has ended and the returnees who are farmers anticipate a good crop of wheat this year. However, in rural villages and towns, economic self-sufficiency is precarious, and the villages are only one adverse event away from disaster. They have very little reserve or flexibility to cope with the next drought, for example, which will surely come within a year or two or five.

Q: What are the main needs of refugees who've returned to Afghanistan?

A: The two needs I hear most often from refugee returnees are that they haven't been able to find employment and, in rural areas, that they lost their livestock in the drought and civil wars, and haven't been able to rebuild their herds.

On a recent visit to Herat in the west of the country, we ran into returnee women who were making a few cents per day hand-spinning wool, and in Bamian, in central Afghanistan, women carpet weavers aren't making much more. Men in most places seem to find day labour now and then, but not regular employment. The lack of economic opportunity seems to be the major problem of most returnees.

Q: What are the main protection issues being faced by refugees returning?

A: One protection problem that we've encountered is concern from Pashtuns who have fled or been expelled from northern Afghanistan by other ethnic groups. Most of them were poor sharecroppers or nomads [Kuchis] and they have lost everything in their flight. It is unsafe for them to attempt to return home and thus they are in camps in Pakistan, and near Kandahar in the south and Herat, and in other cities. A major problem for all returnees - and all Afghans - is the insecurity that reigns throughout much of Afghanistan. Improving security should be the top priority of the Afghan government and the international community.

Q: What about those refugees who remain in Pakistan? What does the future look like for them?

A: Many of the Afghan refugees still remaining in camps in Pakistan do not wish to return to Afghanistan immediately. The reasons for their reluctance appear to be the lack of security and economic opportunity in Afghanistan.

Q: There is a perception among Afghan experts that refugees were pushed really hard by countries in the region and some western nations to go back to a country that's very fragile and can hardly support such huge returnee numbers. What is your response to this?

A: Most of the returnees from Iran we encountered this year and last have told us that they were returning home voluntarily, but that conditions for them in Iran were getting worse. Last year, many refugees returned from Pakistan because of difficulties with the government there, although conditions for refugees in Pakistan seem to have improved this year. There seems no doubt that authorities in those two countries have "encouraged" Afghan refugees to go home.

Q: In comparison to other post-conflict situations, Afghanistan is getting a far lower per capita aid. Are people like you trying to project this, and what achievements have you had to date?

A: In the euphoria surrounding the fall of the Taliban, the international community probably over-promised and raised expectations too high. Aid has been slower in coming than might have been hoped, both because donors are slow and the capacity of the Afghan government is limited. For me, the most important thing is that foreign aid to Afghanistan be sustained over a period of several years to help the Afghan people and to enable the Afghan government to establish itself as viable, democratic, and effective.

Q: With some 600,000 internally displaced living in camps across the country, what is your overall prognosis of the internal displacement situation in Afghanistan?

A: Most of the displaced we have talked to do not believe they can return home unless the security situation improves and they have better economic opportunities in their former homes.

Q: Given the mixed signals emanating from Afghanistan, how optimistic are you about the future of Afghans in their country?

A: The change in Afghanistan during the last year and a half has been breathtaking. Two million refugees and hundreds of thousands of displaced people have returned home. Kabul is a vibrant city once again with a lot of construction and economic activity. Bamian and many other provincial cities are being rebuilt as people return to their homes.

But the challenges are daunting for the future. Elections are planned in only a year, but the new central government has only [just] begun to establish itself in many provinces. Economic development programmes have barely gotten off the ground. What has been achieved thus far in Afghanistan is impressive, but fragile. I'm optimistic about Afghanistan's future, but realistic in thinking that several more years of effort will be required before we can declare Afghanistan a success.