No Way Home: In Afghanistan, Former Refugees Are Left Out in the Cold

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Shah Marai / AFP / Getty Images

Afghans line up to receive winter supplies at a UNHCR distribution center for refugees outside Kabul on Dec. 27, 2011

When Zikariya Nazar Muhammad, 60, embarked on his journey from Karachi in Pakistan to his ancestral home in Afghanistan’s rural interior, he carried a silent hope: that life in his own country would be better than a life of exile in a foreign land growing increasingly intolerant of refugees like himself. He had lived in Pakistan for 13 years, having fled Afghanistan’s repressive Taliban regime in the mid-’90s. But, in the year and a half since Muhammad and his family of 14 returned with support from the U.N.’s refugee agency, he says, they have endured months of homelessness under a tent fashioned out of sheep wool, gone for days on little more than vegetables foraged from the desert, survived armed fighting between the Taliban and government forces, and fled their hometown once again — this time, never to return.

This is not the outcome the world had expected 10 years ago when the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) launched a voluntary repatriation program for Afghans like Muhammad. The collective wisdom was that if the exiled multitudes, clustered predominantly in neighboring Iran and Pakistan, were given a hand in returning home, they would resettle into their communities, picking up where they had left off. But 10 years and 4.6 million returnees later, the refugee agency has found that many are still struggling to start anew. Once a symbol of Afghanistan’s return to normality, they now highlight the country’s biggest challenges, from high poverty rates to low levels of security. In a candid admission last year, UNHCR’s representative in Afghanistan, Peter Nicolaus, characterized its Afghan strategy as the “biggest mistake” the agency ever made.

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The problem, experts say, is that Afghanistan wasn’t — and still isn’t — able to handle this large influx of people. In fact, most countries would shudder at such a prospect: its scale is akin to every person in Denmark moving to Australia, with a vast majority arriving in just five years. But returning refugees represent more than just an uptick in population. They bring with them an urgent need for millions of new jobs, more homes and schools, and better governance. With its war-racked economy and its infrastructure in shambles, Afghanistan was not equipped to deliver. The country ranks a dismal 172nd out of 187 on the U.N.’s Human Development Index, and 42% of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. The Afghan government, which has been preoccupied with a growing insurgency and hamstrung by corruption, has had little time and even lesser resources to attend to the returning millions. “It is true that there has been no specific focus on the needs of returnees,” Afghanistan’s Deputy Minister for Refugees and Repatriation, Abdul Samad Hami, said in a phone interview with TIME. “Their needs are different, they need special care.”

Indeed, refugees often return with nothing and find little more awaits them at home. According to a snapshot survey conducted by the UNHCR and the Afghan government last year, 40% of returnees live in conditions substantially worse than their local counterparts. While 80% of nonreturnee men had some regular employment, only 17% of returnees had consistent work. And 85% of nonreturnees had access to health services, as opposed to 24% of returnees. “Their most basic needs are not being met,” says Engineer Shah Wali, a returnee who is now head of programs at the Danish Committee for Aid to Afghan Refugees. Returnees now make up a quarter of Afghanistan’s population and are, in many ways, both a symptom and a cause of the country’s ongoing instability. Unable to cope, a large number have become displaced again, fleeing to informal settlements on the outskirts of cities like Kabul where tens of children froze to death this winter.

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Afghanistan’s vast humanitarian community runs a handful of programs to provide start-up assistance, like cash grants of up to $150 per returnee to cover travel expenses and initial costs of resettlement, construction materials for home building for those who have land, and small lots of land (often in far-flung areas) for the most vulnerable. But even these basic programs cover only a small cohort of returnees, and those run by the government are riddled with corruption and inefficiency. More crucial, while these efforts provide short-term relief, analysts say, they don’t go a very long way in helping returnees reintegrate into the Afghan economy and society.

To address this, the principal players have gone back to the drawing board. After months of consultations that began last year, the UNHCR and the governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran have devised a Solutions Strategy they say will shift the focus beyond humanitarian relief. Under the new plan, 48 communities with a high concentration of returnees are being developed as “model sites” through a wide range of community-level programs, including teacher and vocational training, improved water and drainage systems and better basic health care. The key, they say, is a focus on livelihood. “We hope to bridge the gap between humanitarian assistance and the development needs of these people,” says Suzanne Murray Jones, UNHCR’s senior adviser in Kabul. And to achieve this goal, UNHCR is working to put returnees on the radar of a vast array of U.N. agencies, including the Development Programme and UNICEF, and a host of Afghan ministries, so that the country’s macro-development programs are taken to returnee neighborhoods.

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Analysts say the renewed focus on Afghanistan’s returnees is as much a response to regional politics as it is to humanitarian necessity. Over 3 million refugees still remain in Iran and Pakistan. Dissuaded by the lack of basic services and the growing insurgency in Afghanistan, the numbers of returnees have dwindled over the years. In 2011, only 60,000 returned, a nearly 50% drop from the previous year and a fraction of the millions that returned during the first five years of the program. Refugees who remain abroad have become a source of escalating geopolitical tensions in the region. Public sentiment in Pakistan and Iran has turned against them, and the hospitality of the two governments is waning. Pakistan has shuttered many refugee camps, calling them sanctuaries for militant groups, and Iran has carried out en masse deportations in recent years. In this charged environment, UNHCR and the Afghan leadership are under tremendous pressure to improve conditions for returnees and maintain a high rate of repatriation.

Many, however, are questioning whether a greater focus on repatriation is feasible, or even desirable at this juncture, given the growing atmosphere of insecurity in Afghanistan as NATO troops prepare to withdraw from the country in 2014. “Pushing Afghan refugees to go home is not the solution,” says Afghan official Hami. He expresses hope that Pakistan and Iran will continue to give Afghan refugees sanctuary till reintegration efforts bear fruit. But for returnees like Muhammad, it’s already too late. There is no assurance that the new development efforts will reach his village. His family has received some housing support from a Norwegian nonprofit, but his two young sons haven’t been able to find regular work, and access to food and clean water remains a daily challenge. They have nothing in Pakistan, Muhammad lamented, and no place called home.

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