Cold tents for returnees in east

Mushrooming tents and mud huts built by returnees from Pakistan are turning a desert in Khogyani District, eastern Afghanistan, into a bustling settlement.

The Chemtala desert, about 25km to the west of Jalalabad, the provincial capital of Nangarhar Province, is now home to over 6,000 returnee families, some of whom were expelled from the Jalozai camp in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province in mid-2008.

The onset of winter is proving a challenge to many returnees who have little means of keeping their tents warm. When temperatures plunge to minus 2-3 degrees Centigrade at night, and children begin crying, many parents regret their decision of return.

“Shelter is our most ardent need,” said Noorullah, the father of a returnee family.

His concerns were widely echoed by others. “I wish we hadn’t left Pakistan. Life was much better there than here,” said an elderly returnee, Golam Shah.

In addition to being cold, most tents and mud huts in the area are extremely vulnerable to rain and flash floods. Several people were killed and dozens of houses and large areas of agricultural land were destroyed by floods in recent years, according to the provincial authorities.

Afghanistan has been the largest refugee recipient nation in the world. Five million have returned since 2002, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

Nangarhar is second to Kabul in terms of the absorption of refugees.

From March to November 2008, 276,000 refugees returned from Pakistan to Afghanistan. Of these, 170,000 have settled in the three eastern provinces of Nangarhar, Kunar and Laghman, UNHCR statistics show.

The UNHCR-sponsored voluntary return from Pakistan has been put on hold until March 2009, but the programme is open for returnees from Iran.

Photo: Noorullah Stanikzai/IRIN
At least 50,000 returnees from Pakistan have become internally displaced persons over the past several years, according to the government and UNHCR

Shelter programme

Under a shelter programme supported by the UNHCR and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), over 5,900 families have been helped to build two-room houses in plots in Nangarhar Province allocated to them by the provincial government. The government of Japan has also funded a UN Habitat project to help build 1,000 shelters for returnees in the same province.

However, the needs of about one million people who have returned to Nangarhar since 2002 exceed available aid assistance, said experts.

Aid agencies said their assistance was aimed at the most vulnerable. However, lack of access to basic needs such as shelter, clean drinking water, health, food and education had made it difficult to identify and reach even the neediest.

Despite seven years of debate about capacity building in Afghan institutions and the increasing disbursement of aid money by the government, the Ministry of Refugees and Returnees said it still lacked the resources and capacity to respond to the needs of returning refugees.

“We only feed returnees with futile promises of assistance and support,” one senior government official, who preferred anonymity, said.

“We have a very small budget and largely rely on support from donors and international organisations,” Abdul Karim Barahawi, the minister of refugees, said at a press conference in Kabul on 28 December.