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Agfhanistan- Pakistan: Repatriation obstacles facing key province of Nangarhar

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QUETTA, 20 June 2007 (IRIN) - For Abdul Quados, a resident of the Katwai refugee camp in Pakistan's sparsely populated Balochistan Province, returning to his home province of Nangarhar in eastern Afghanistan is simply not an option.

"I won't return to my homeland. There is no security there," Quados, 47, said at his shoe shop outside the camp, 300km south of the provincial capital, Quetta, where he is able to earn just over US$150 a month to support his family.

"I certainly can't earn that kind of money if I return. How will I take care of my family?" the father-of-nine asked.

That is a question often asked by his neighbours, many of whom hail from Nangarhar as well, but have lived in Pakistan since the 1979 Soviet invasion.

Ajab Khan, 36, who has lived in Pakistan for 25 years and shares similar concerns, said his family discussed the possibility of returning, only to decide against it after a brief visit across the porous dust-ridden frontier last year.

"When I got back, it was clear we couldn't return. Things haven't improved at all," Khan said.

Such sentiments are not unusual amongst the over two million Afghans living in Pakistan today, but point to a much larger challenge facing the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as the international aid community: If Afghans are to return to their homeland, much more rehabilitation and development work will be needed.

More than five years after the collapse of the Taliban, Afghans have grown impatient over issues such as jobs, shelter, insecurity and access to land - all areas fundamental for their return and well-being.

According to the 3 May 2007 Registration of Afghans in Pakistan report, produced jointly by the Pakistani government and the office of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the vast majority (87 percent) of Afghans in Pakistan said they had no plans to return any time soon.

The Nangarhar challenge

In Nangarhar - a largely agricultural province of 7,616sqkm adjacent to the Pakistani border and where most Afghans living in Pakistan come from - that challenge will prove even stronger, aid workers said.

Of the 2,153,088 registered Afghans in Pakistan today, 451,200 or 21 percent come from Nangarhar - making it a key province in the overall repatriation effort, the same report revealed.

"Nangarhar is a major area of origin for Afghans still in Pakistan," Vivian Tan, a UNHCR spokesperson in Islamabad told IRIN. "There's no doubt a lot needs to be done if these Afghans choose to return," she said, calling for further efforts.

"Returnees need stability and security if they are to stay in their home areas. If return is unsustainable, they will go back to Pakistan or wherever they can make a living," Tan said.

Since the repatriation of Afghans began in March 2002, of the more than three million Afghans who have left Pakistan, over 600,000 have returned to Nangarhar, only to find a less than hospitable environment there, and despite the presence of a sizable aid community on the ground and the free distribution of land by the government to facilitate resettlement.

No water, schools

Less than 40 percent of Nangarhar's 1.2 million inhabitants have access to clean drinking water, while the province's education and health infrastructure is particularly poor.

In 2006 Mohammad Bashir and his family returned from Pakistan's North West Frontier Province. They were given a piece of land to build on at Shaikh Mesri camp in the north of Nangarhar Province - a township now being erected for landless returnees.

"There is no water in Shaikh Mesri," Bashir said, who now buys water from passing tankers coming in from the provincial capital, Jalalabad. Another returnee who built a house in the same camp cited the lack of schools:

"UNICEF has set up four tents here which have been used by hundreds of boys as a high school. Girls have nowhere to study," said Mohammadullah.

Members of the aid community are aware of these issues: "The international community needs to focus efforts and funds on developing the one township [Shaikh Mesri] that exists," Tan said, noting the need for water, roads, schools and health clinics.

Unemployment, high transport costs

As for jobs, they too remain scarce, with unemployment remaining a common complaint amongst Nangarhar returnees.

"Lack of access to jobs is another major obstacle to return," Tan added, citing a strong need for vocational training and micro-credit projects to enable returnees to rebuild their lives.

More than 70 percent of Afghans living in Pakistan are illiterate and most returnees are unskilled, making it increasingly difficult for them to find jobs.

Meanwhile, many returnees in Nangarhar point out a number of other problems, which they say have undermined their living conditions after repatriating from Pakistan.

Mawlawi Gul Rasool, a construction worker in Jalalabad, said due to poor transport links between his village and Jalalabad, he ends up spending most of his salary just getting to work.

"I earn 150 Afghani [$3] a day and spend 80 Afghani [$1.60] on the daily return journey to Jalalabad," Rasool said.

Lack of optimism

The provincial capital, home to some 500,000 inhabitants, has a sporadic electricity supply, and areas outside the city fare even worse.

Such realities have left many Afghans in Nangarhar and beyond with a nostalgic feeling about their lives back in Pakistan as refugees.

"Our lives were better in Pakistan. At least there we had power and gas," one returnee grumbled.

And while Nangarhar's director of refugee and returnee affairs, Hassan Shinwary, sympathised with the plight of such returnees, he said the Afghan government was doing everything it could to help them.

"We are doing everything in our capacity to help the re-integration of Afghan returnees. Yet, we should remember that Afghanistan is a poor, war-ravaged and underdeveloped country," Shinwary said. "It will take time before the problems of returnees are sorted out."

But for many Afghans on the other side of the border looking in, that time is slowly running out. After years of promises, the situation is increasingly less appealing, with many Afghans taking a less than optimistic view of their country's peace and stability.

"We do not know what is going to happen six months from now," Nematullah, a Nangarhar resident, shrugged.

"The Taliban are becoming stronger every day and we don't trust the Americans. They will be here as long as it is in their interest to stay. [Then] They will fly like pigeons and abandon us as they have in the past."