Afghanistan - The challenges of sustaining returns

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Since major repatriation operations to Afghanistan resumed in 2002, more than 5 million Afghans have returned to their country, mostly from Pakistan and Iran. Another half million internally displaced people have gone back home. However, approximately 3 million Afghans still remain in the two neighbouring countries alone. Localized conflict continues to displace some communities within Afghanistan, while drought, poverty and lack of job opportunities oblige many Afghans to seek employment abroad.

With the successful completion of the Bonn process agreed in December 2001, Afghanistan has a democratically elected president, a parliament and a constitution. But the political transition and economic development still face challenges.

Continued insecurity, particularly in the south and east, but increasingly in the central and western regions as well, is a major impediment to reconstruction and development. The violence is also linked to drug production and trafficking which obstruct the building of a viable and effective state. Though economic growth has been strong over the last six years, Afghanistan's per capita income and social indicators remain among the lowest in the world.

In recognition of the long-term engagement required to sustain Afghanistan's recovery and progress towards peace and stability, the government and the international community committed themselves to a five-year plan in January 2006. Known as the Afghanistan Compact, it outlines key objectives for improving security, governance, rule of law and human rights, as well as economic and social development. It includes provisions for supporting the reintegration of Afghans returning voluntarily from abroad and for addressing the broader challenges of population movements.

These plans were further developed in the Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS, 2009-2013) that was launched at the Paris Conference in June 2008 and resulted in international pledges of US$20 billion.

After the huge return movements of 2002-2004, the pace of repatriation has dropped in the last four years. (Nevertheless, Afghanistan has been UNHCR's largest repatriation operation worldwide for seven consecutive years). This was anticipated. Many of the remaining Afghans have been living outside their country for more than 20 years. More than 50 percent were born overseas. They have become used to different living conditions. Moreover, many originate from areas currently affected by insurgency and deep structural poverty.

Nevertheless, voluntary repatriation will continue to be the preferred durable solution. UNHCR has adjusted its support for initial travel and reintegration assistance to bring it more into line with recent cost increases. It will continue to support a shelter programme - with an additional 10,000 units in 2008 - that has built new homes for more than a million returnees since 2002. Cooperation with the Afghan authorities to allocate land for poor and homeless returnees and local people will be intensified.

In November 2008, the Afghan government and UNHCR were to hold an International Conference on Return and Reintegration, bringing together government ministries and donors in Kabul to see how Afghanistan's absorption capacity could best be strengthened through the ANDS' Refugees, Returnees and IDPs sector strategy to support the future repatriation of refugees.