The aid community, the Afghan government and donor nations were hasty and misguided in encouraging more than two million refugees to return to Afghanistan last year, a recent AREU issues paper concludes.
In Taking Refugees for a Ride? The Politics of Refugee Return to Afghanistan, authors David Turton and Peter Marsden question the international, donor-driven policy of facilitating the massive return of Afghan refugees to a country still in the grips of a devastating drought, political instability and weak government institutions unable to cope with the returnees. The report urges donors to help slow down the pace of repatriation by increasing support to refugee programmes in neighbouring Pakistan and Iran, and by increasing support for UNHCR's protection work in these countries.
"Donors should support the protection work of UNHCR, not only directly, but indirectly, by providing serious burden-sharing aid to countries of asylum," the paper says.
The authors also call for an expansion of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to all regions of Afghanistan, and for an increase in the amount of reconstruction and emergency aid pledged and delivered to the country. Without increased security and the ability to earn a living in Afghanistan, the authors argue, most refugees would be better off staying in neighbouring countries for the time being.
The report comes amidst growing concern that continued short-sightedness about the country's ability to absorb millions of extra people in its cities, towns and countryside will put more lives at risk as the 2003 repatriation season gets underway in March.
"Repatriating large numbers of refugees at this time is in the interest of neither the refugees nor Afghanistan," says Andrew Wilder, AREU's director. "We should learn from the lessons of 2002 and avoid unnecessarily creating another humanitarian crisis. Furthermore, we risk contributing to political destabilisation in Afghanistan by increasing the number of landless and unemployed Afghans fighting over scarce resources."
In what was the largest assisted refugee return in decades, UNHCR estimated that it repatriated close to 1.8 million Afghans from Pakistan and Iran between March and November 2002. Though supported by the UN, the Afghan government, donors and the media, these "encouraging messages" were not matched with the material and economic support required to maintain these new arrivals in the long term.
Instead of catering to the interests of refugees, the decision to facilitate the mass repatriation was driven by neighbouring countries, donor interests and political pressure to legitimise the new government, the report concludes.
"Although rightly seen as a massive vote of confidence in the new, UN-backed Afghan Transitional Administration, the return over such a short period to a country devastated by 23 years of war and nearly four years of drought was causing widespread anxiety about the 'sustainability' of return and its impact on the pace of reconstruction," the report says.
The authors also argue that the 2002 repatriation undermined vital reconstruction of the country's tattered infrastructure by diverting resources from longer-term reconstruction and development programmes to short-term emergency relief programmes for returnees.
"The return of so many Afghans from neighbouring countries has helped to hijack the development agenda by putting even more pressure on an already fragile infrastructure and adding to the number of people in need of life-saving emergency assistance," it says.
Now, with close to four million refugees remaining in Iran and Pakistan and deep funding cuts to refugee assistance programmes in these countries, pressures from neighbouring countries to maintain the momentum of last year's return will persist unless donors adopt a more equitable, longer-term strategy for what is still the largest refugee case load in the world.
The report urges policy makers to give up on the idea that "sustainability" requires anchoring returnees to their places of origin. Instead, they should recognise that economic migration has been an important survival strategy in the region for centuries, as well as an important source of labour for neighbouring countries.
"[Policy makers] should be thinking...of mobility as one of the key ingredients of sustainability, both for households and for the Afghan economy as a whole," the authors advise.
Moreover, UNHCR would also be in a stronger position to protect refugee rights in neighbouring countries if donor states were prepared to help foot the bill. Instead of slashing refugee assistance, the report urges international donors to put the interests of refugees first and increase funding to neighbouring countries of asylum, support UNHCR's refugee protection activities in these countries, while continuing to pay for the reconstruction and security priorities of the Afghan government. Without such aid, UNHCR has little leverage against the perceived interests of regional states.
The paper concludes that "..it was precisely UNHCR's weak position in relation to the policies of its funders and hosts that led it to launch a "facilitated" repatriation programme in early 2002, which was, arguably, not in the best interests of its intended beneficiaries, nor of the long-term reconstruction of Afghanistan".
About the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU)
The Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) is an independent research institution that conducts and facilitates quality, action-oriented research and analysis to inform policy, improve practice and increase the impact of humanitarian and development programmes in Afghanistan. It was established by the assistance community working in Afghanistan and has a management board with representation from donors, UN agencies and NGOs.
AREU's Issues Paper Series is a set of timely publications designed to inform policy makers and practitioners by identifying and analysing the trends, opportunities and challenges affecting the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan.
Current funding for the AREU has been provided by the European Commission (EC) and the governments of Sweden and Switzerland. Funding for this study was provided by the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO).
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