Afghanistan + 2 more

From disappointment to hope: Transforming experiences of young Afghans returning "home" from Pakistan and Iran

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Looking beyond perspectives limited to a "return to home land," this briefi ng paper focuses on Afghan youth and young adults who were either born or grew up in Pakistan or Iran. By examining personal journeys of their return to Afghanistan, resettlement and, for some, onward movement, it addresses gaps in:

- the understanding ofthe less visible social and emotional trajectories experienced by young Afghan re fugees related to returning to and reintegration in their "homeland"; and

- the crucial links be tween these issues and the challenges they face related to meeting material needs during reintegration. Both of these issues can threaten the eventual success of their resettlement.

This paper's fi ndings have been drawn from detailed analysis of interviews with 199 purposively selected second-generation Afghan refugee and returnee respondents in these two neighbouring countries and in Afghanistan. The study was ad ministrated through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and funded by the European Commission; it follows 2004-05 research conducted by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) on transnational net works, which drew attention to a gap in information about the signifi cant number of Afghan youth and young adults in Pakistan and Iran.

After decades of protracted confl ict beginning in the late 1970s, Afghanistan was the source of the world's largest number of refugees from a single country under UNHCR's mandate at the end of 2007. While Afghanistan's population as dispersed among 72 different countries, 96 percent of these displaced Afghans reside in Pakistan and Iran. The majority of those who remain in these neighbouring countries have lived in exile for more than 20 years; an estimated half of displaced Afghans in Pakistan and Iran were born outside Afghanistan in a second or even third generation of displacement. Of the more than quarter million of those who repatriated in 2008, 99 percent were from Pakistan; additionally, some 2.8 million registered Afghan refugees are still living in Pakistan and Iran. In Pakistan, 74 percent of the Afghan population is under 28 years old while, in Iran, 71 percent of the Afghan population is 29 years old or younger.

In both countries, this sizeable group of young Afghans have grown up in a very different environment from that of both their parents and their own generation who remained in Afghanistan during the period of confl ict. They have had significantly greater access to urban facilities than those who stayed, as well as different opportunities and experiences as refugees among Pakistanis and Iranians. For these young refugees, returning to their "homeland" is often accompanied by a complex mix of different kinds of stress - probably more so than for previous generations who had actually lived in Afghanistan and may have left loved ones there.

Since 2002, UNHCR has recorded more than 5.6 million Afghans - around 20 percent of Afghanistan's overall opulation - as having returned from Pakistan and Iran both through its voluntary assisted repatriation programme (4.3 million) as well as spontaneously (1.3 million); 46 percent of those who returned voluntarily wen to Kabul and Nangarhar provinces. The majority of those who repatriated in 2002 - the "season" that saw massive refugee returns - had been in refuge during the previous seven years, while many of those who had lived in the neighbouring countries for decades stayed. This trend of rapid voluntary repatriation has slowed down since 2005, refl ecting the emerging concerns over security in Afghanistan as well as persistent difficulties in fi nding housing and livelihood opportunities. Deportations from Iran of illegal and some legal Afghan migrants continue, implying repatriation numbers may increase but under less-than-voluntary circumstances. In 2008, repatriation from Pakistan unexpectedly increased, refl ecting the current food and fuel crisis, closure of the Jalozai refugee camp, and insecurity in North West Frontier Province.

What is unclear from the repatriation trends above is the proportion of returnees who eventually settle in fghanistan for the long term. Evidence from the fi eld reveals continuous emotional struggles and lack of certainty about future intentions among young Afghans who returned to their "homeland." More than half of this study's returnee respondents cited cases of someone close to them recently remigrating to Iran or Pakistan. At the time of fi eldwork in 2007, over a quarter of the returnee respondents in Afghanistan still had hopes or expectations of leaving the country again in either the short or the long term; they cited a wide range of reasons informed by a variety of emotional responses to the reintegration process.

Translating those aspirations into action is more difficult for those having less independent decision-making ability within the household. It must be recognised, however, that women - even those less educated and with less freedom of movement - do have the potential to pass on their negative perceptions of their "homeland" to the next generation and to other relatives still in exile, as data from this study shows. Similarly, even those who so far have managed to live in Afghanistan sometimes advised their relatives in exile never to come back since life in Afghanistan turned out to be dissatisfying. The personal fulfi lment and satisfaction of all secondgeneration returnees cannot be neglected; it plays a role in the broader picture of refugees' decision-making about returning and expectations related to reintegration. More importantly, the research shows that if returnees remigrate after having failed to reintegrate successfully, they are likely to be even more critical of possibilities of returning in the future.

The findings point to taking action that recognises the need for less visible, non-material programming and for proactive advocacy supporting the permanent settlement of these second-generation Afghans in Afghanistan. It is of critical importance that policy debate and programme development be informed by understanding the characteristics of this sizeable group of young Afghans who have grown up away from their country as well as their perceptions of return and reintegration experiences. This would help to ensure that both Afghanistan and the young returnees themselves benefi t from the experience of return and that the Afghan population remaining in neighbouring countries and ongoing cross-border movements are managed in the best possible ways.