Afghanistan + 1 more

Afghan returnees: Home is where the "hard" is

Michelle Brown and Ada Williams recently returned from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"We don't want to go back to Afghanistan. There are no jobs and there is no security. My life is good here in Pakistan." Despite the availability of UNHCR assistance to repatriate to Afghanistan, Mohammed, a refugee teacher living at Shamshatoo refugee camp near Peshawar, explained to Refugees International that he had no intention of leaving Pakistan. Mohammed's feelings about returning to Afghanistan are echoed by most of the estimated three million Afghan refugees remaining in Pakistan. In a recent UNHCR survey of 8,000 refugee families, 84 percent indicated that they were unwilling to return. They cited lack of security, shelter, and employment as the reasons why they did not want to return.

UNHCR is finalizing a Tri-Partite agreement with Pakistan and Afghanistan in which repatriation would take place over a three-year period. UNHCR plans to repatriate 600,000 refugees from Pakistan in 2003. Many aid workers believe this plan is unrealistic, and most refugees would prefer to stay where they are. One aid worker explained, "These are not people who have been living here for just a year, still dreaming of their homeland. They know the realities in Afghanistan, and Pakistan is their homeland now."

Their reluctance is understandable given the miserable conditions in which many of the 1.8 million people who did return to Afghanistan now find themselves. The promises of reconstruction assistance have largely not materialized and the money that has arrived in the country has missed significant numbers of returnees. As a result, many returnees find themselves materially worse off than they were as refugees in Pakistan. As refugees, most had access to basic services such as health, water, and education. This is not the case in Afghanistan. As a returnee in Kabul explained to RI, "The government promised us that if we came home we would have homes and get a job. They lied to us. We are not happy with the government. We have nothing here. Our lives were better in Pakistan."

In Afghanistan, one of the least-developed countries in the world, almost everyone needs assistance, and the influx of returnees has overwhelmed an already strained aid system. Every agency that RI interviewed explained that reintegration and reconstruction programs in Afghanistan were woefully inadequate. Given the possibility of war in Iraq, agencies fear they will have to scale down their already insufficient operations. UNHCR has already cut back on its reintegration assistance several times over the past year. At the beginning of the repatriation program, returnees received 150 kilos of wheat, two pieces of plastic sheeting, a blanket, hygienic cloth, soap, detergent, a bucket and a jerry can. Now the assistance has been scaled back to 50 kilos of wheat, two pieces of plastic sheeting, and either soap or hygienic cloth.

Vulnerable groups, in particular, are falling through the cracks. Many widows who are unable to work or support themselves alone, find themselves in extremely difficult conditions, yet they have not been targeted for assistance. Shelter programs have been a priority for donors and NGOs and thousands of families with land have benefited. But the truly vulnerable, the landless, are often forced to squat in destroyed buildings in urban areas or live in tents.

Lack of employment opportunities in rural areas is one of the most urgent problems facing rural returnees and has fostered the rural-to-urban migration that is overwhelming the cities. Longer-term development agencies have been slow to start programs that would enable people to begin to earn a living. There are a variety of labor-intensive public works programs in both rural and urban areas, but these are stopgap measures because people are only able to work for two weeks. Many people express frustration that the UN Development Program (UNDP) has been too slow in starting its reconstruction programs and deploying staff to the field. A UN official explained, "UNDP, the logical agency to play a leading role in reconstruction, has yet to find its role in this country. There is so much they could do to easily make themselves useful, but they're not doing it." Recently, UNDP has started to play a more proactive role by beginning the oft-postponed National Area Based Programs initiative, which includes a variety of public works projects. UNDP-funded public works projects are now visible in some urban areas.

The World Bank, one of the lead agencies on community development, is also accused of moving too slowly. It is scheduled in the next few months to begin the National Solidarity Program (NSP) -- one of the only programs that focuses on community mobilization and development. The NSP is touted to be an innovative program in which communities identify, design, and assist in implementing projects of up to $20,000. NGOs and UN agencies have raised questions about the feasibility of implementing a program such as this in a country with no banking system in an environment that is politically volatile. This project was scheduled to begin in November 2002, but the start date continues to be postponed. Furthermore, it will take years before the NSP will reach all the communities in need. However, RI believes that since the program is new and has the potential to relieve part of the returnee problems, it should be implemented and given the chance to succeed.

Insecurity and lack of rule of law have made it difficult for some returnees to reintegrate. Although donors have stated that security and human rights are a priority, there has been little concrete support for the relevant government bodies: the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Interior, and the Human Rights Commission. In most rural areas and in some urban areas, local commanders function as autonomous rulers -- harassing people and sometimes committing human rights abuses against them. According to a UN official, commanders will often demand a certain percentage of a farmer's harvest as a "tax" in order to feed his soldiers, thus undermining the economic base of many rural people and their incentives to produce a surplus. Also, some families have to pay a "fee" to local commanders so they will not conscript their adolescent sons into their militias. In Kabul, for example, there are cases of soldiers and police extorting money from Pashtun businessmen. These abuses routinely occur throughout most of Afghanistan, yet the relevant agencies do not have the necessary independence, capacity or funding to investigate allegations and prosecute offenders.

Despite the return of 1.8 million Afghans last year, many Afghans remain in Pakistan: 1.4 million refugees live in UNHCR-assisted refugee camps and a minimum of 1.6 million live in urban areas without UNHCR assistance. Only 18 percent of last year's returnees received UNHCR assistance, so UNHCR's caseload remains almost the same. UNHCR-Pakistan has suffered from major budget cuts this year. In just a year, their budget has been cut from $32 million to $21 million, a 48 percent reduction. Furthermore, as a result of global UNHCR shortfalls, the Pakistan office has been required to reduce its approved budget by an additional 20 percent. This reduction will remain in effect until the global budget is met -- an unlikely scenario.

In response to these budget cuts, UNHCR has called on its NGO partners to seek direct funding from donors. While it has not yet cut any programs, it has instituted a four- to six-month "bridging period" to allow NGOs a chance to scale down their current programs. UNHCR itself is providing funding for life-sustaining activities only: food for 74,000 new arrivals, water, and health care. Community services such as education, vocational training, and some reproductive health programs will be the first to go. According to UNHCR, if they are forced to close 25 Basic Health Units, 24 percent of which include Maternal and Child Health Centers, maternal and child mortality rates, already at high levels, will increase. Furthermore, community mobilization programs and community services for women such as reproductive health education, vocational training, income generation programs, and literacy programs will be cut, leading to a further marginalization of refugee women. UNHCR is concerned that funding shortfalls will make it unable to fulfill its policy priority of protecting and assisting refugee women. More generally, UNHCR and NGOs worry that these budget cuts will "push" refugees out of Pakistan and undermine the stability of Afghanistan, a country that is unable to meet even the most basic needs of its current population.

Refugees International therefore recommends that:

  • Donors work with the Afghan government and the UN to provide necessary funding to assist in the reconstruction of Afghanistan in order to provide an adequate level of support for returnees.
  • The World Bank immediately begin to implement the National Solidarity Program in communities that are not yet receiving any assistance.
  • Donors provide increased direct funding to NGOs providing community services for Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
  • Donors provide capacity building and funding to the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Interior and the Human Rights Commission in order to strengthen the rule of law and improve security throughout Afghanistan.