Afghanistan

Afghanistan: Returning refugees in need of winterized shelter

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By Shaun Scales and Astrid Sehl

Refugees who had to leave their camp in Iran have been provided with winterized shelter and NFI's when returning to the Afghan side of the border.

A NRC emergency team has recently completed the rapid winterisation of a temporary transit facility for refugees returned from Iran to their district of origin in northern Afghanistan. 379 families returned to the Sozma Qala area of Sar-i-Pul province in August 2009 following a decision by the Iranian authorities to close the refugee camp where they have lived for over 20 years.

"For the majority of these families an immediate return to their village of origin was not possible due to their original houses and water facilities being destroyed, and issues over land ownership following their prolonged displacement," explained NRC Country Director Charlotte Olsen.

In response to this situation, local Afghan authorities approved the development of a temporary transit facility, the Sozma Qala Transit Camp, on nearby land where families may live until durable solutions are developed. Earlier this autumn it became clear that by the onset of winter only a limited number of families would have returned to their villages of origin and that progress towards durable solutions for the majority of families would have been minimal.

Still, some 930 000 Afghan refugees remain in Iran.

NRC Emergency Winterisation Program

The original transit camp facilities were temporary in nature and were not intended for winter occupancy. Tents were provided as family shelters and a basic water delivery system was developed. NRC, with funds and in-kind material donations from UNHCR and SIDA, adopted the responsibility for winterising this existing temporary infrastructure and providing necessary additional assistance to ensure the camp remains habitable throughout the winter months. In addition, shelter assistance has been provided to the limited number of families who have returned to their villages of origin but have yet to secure habitable winter shelter.

By far the largest element of the program was the provision of additional shelter to ensure that the previously provided tents were protected from the severe winter weather. This was quickly identified as a priority due to the extreme vulnerability of the population resulting from inadequate winter shelter.

Local participation

Early consultation with the camp community 'Shura' indicated a lack of skilled carpenters within the returning community prompting the decision to look to the surrounding villages for skilled people who were familiar with the use of cutting tools and jigs.

Once shelter positions were marked, additional beneficiary teams were responsible for the assembly of the shelters in their allocated plots. An additional positive effect of employing skilled carpenters from surrounding villages has been the benefit to communities beyond the camp from paid employment for some villagers.

"Designing the program to utilise the available skills and on-site availability of the beneficiary community was key to maintaining an acceptable pace of construction in a situation where time was extremely limited," Olsen said.

Heaters and fuel distribution

During a construction period of 33 days 379 family shelters were constructed and occupied by families. Once the infrastructure was largely complete the focus of the winterisation process switched to the provision of winter Non-Food Items (NFIs). All the families were issued with local Bukari (solid fuel stove) and chimney kit with 90kg of coal. NRC technical teams were active throughout the camp providing advice on the safe fitting of chimneys. Additional winter clothing kits were also distributed to each family.

Other NRC programs in this area includes school construction and legal assistance initiatives. NRC has been providing assistance to returnees and IDPs in Afghanistan since 2003.