Resettling Nearly Half a Million Afghans in Nangrahar: The consequences of the mass return of refugees
Author: Fazal Muzhary
Most of the 600,000 Afghans who returned from Pakistan last year chose to settle in the eastern border province of Nangrahar. This has put considerable strain on both health and education services. There has also been a boom in property prices, which has exacerbated land grabbing, already a major source of conflict in the province. AAN’s Fazal Muzhary (with input from Jelena Bjelica) analyses the local consequences of this mass return.
For most of the last year, massive numbers of trucks could be seen crossing into Afghanistan at the Torkham border, loaded not with flour, cooking oil or any of the other usual imports, but with returning Afghan refugees together with all their worldly goods. Many are returning to their homeland after decades spent in Pakistan and are bringing everything they own and can carry. Trucks are loaded high with mattresses, kitchen utensils, bicycles, fans, firewood, wardrobes, plastic water tanks, even timber taken from their old homes ready to build new ones. It is not unusual to see animals tethered on top – chickens, cats, cows, goats, sheep and sometimes dogs.
The trucks are not only piled high with belongings, but family members too, sitting on the top of all the stuff – women, men, girls and boys. For many of the ‘returnees’, it is their first time back in Afghanistan for decades. For some, those born in Pakistan, it is their first time ever, now back and moving towards new and sometimes unknown destinations.
Many spoke to AAN of their relief and happiness to be back on Afghan soil. 59 year old Nur Ahmad, for example, who is the oldest of six brothers originally from Baghlan province, where they were heading for, told AAN, “We could not leave our house in Haripur in Pakistan because the police would always stop us and ask for money.” Back in his homeland, he said they felt “very comfortable, despite all the problems we expect with finding work and shelter. “Crossing into Afghanistan was a dream for us, a dream come true, thank God.” Local officials in Nangarhar said, about 30 per cent of all the returnees that settled there were originally from other provinces, most of them neighbouring ones. However, they said those returnees appeared to have no attention to move on to their respective provinces.
A peak in ‘returns’, especially for Nangrahar province
More than 600,000 Afghans returned from Pakistan in 2016, according to reports by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR. (1) During the first six months of last year, just 7,000 Afghans returned (see here). Then, the numbers picked up dramatically due to pressure from the Pakistani government. This included house raids by police and eviction notices, as detailed in an earlier AAN dispatch and reports by Human Rights Watch and UNHCR(2). Returns peaked in second half of last year while the absolute peak in returns was recorded in August 2016. Many, if not most of those who returned in 2016 (or their parents or grandparents) had left Afghanistan between 30 and 40 years ago, during the Soviet invasion, and have limited remaining family or economic ties to their homeland (see here)
After a winter lull, the returns have again picked up, this year. According to the UN humanitarian coordination agency, OCHA, 17,970 undocumented (Afghans holding no Proof of Registration, and not registered with the UNHCR) Afghan returnees crossed the border from Pakistan between January and March 2017, 20 per cent more than in the same period last year.
The current influx is just the latest wave of returnees. Since 2001, about 3.9 million Afghans have returned from Pakistan. In the immediate years following the overthrow of the Taleban regime, people mainly returned voluntarily, motivated by the hope that peace had been restored. After that, the number of Afghans returning home slowly diminished, largely due to the renewal of the conflict. Each year, from 2009 to 2014, fewer than 100,000 Afghans returned from Pakistan (except in 2012, when it was slightly over the 100,000 mark – for annual figures, see here).
Most of the recent returnees have chosen Nangrahar as their new home. According to Provincial Council Member, Zabihullah Zmaray, over 70 per cent of Afghans returning from Pakistan decided to settle in different districts of the province. His figure broadly tallies with one provided by Aziz Ahmad Miakhel, media advisor at the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation (MoRR), who put that percentage at over 60 per cent. Miakhel based his figure on the daily registration of returnees at the Torkham border crossing. IOM found in a survey of the heads of 306 households of undocumented refugees that 76 per cent said they planned to settle in Nangrahar. OCHA has put the figure of all returnees, both documented (Afghans holding Proof of Registration, and registered with the UNHCR) and undocumented, now settled in Nangarhar (from Pakistan, Iran and abroad) at around 418,000 (available here). The population of Nangrahar, which was about 1.5 million in 1390/91 (2012/13) according to the Central Statistics Office (www.cso.af), has increased by about a third in less than a year, if these estimates are correct.
Both the December 2016 and May 2017 IOM data confirm that most of the returnees from Pakistan came via the eastern border crossing at Torkham. The southern border crossing, in Kandahar’s Spin Boldak, saw far fewer returnees. Less pressure on Afghans from the Pakistani authorities in Baluchistan is probably the main reason for that. It is not just Nangarhar which has seen a high rate of returns. The east as a whole, so Nangarhar, Laghman and Kunar, together received the bulk of the returnees in the second half of last year. IOM says that these three provinces now have a total returnee population of 2,456,500, with one in five of the population now being a returnee (see here).
A strain on social services
This rapid increase in Nangrahar’s population has put a strain on government services, including health and education. The city’s main hospital, the provincial council member Zmaray told AAN, was built to cater for a population of about 1.3 million people in the 1970s, but is now overcrowded and struggling to provide services. He said all wards and bedrooms were full and new patients were either having to wait in corridors or in the open yard of the hospital. A doctor at the provincial hospital in Jalalabad city (who did not want to be named) said that the daily rate of babies being born there had doubled, from 60 to 120 per day.
Education department officials tell similar stories. According to the department’s director, Allahdad Ismailzai, the number of students at Nangrahar High School, located in the centre of Jalalabad, has more than doubled. An additional 1,300 to 1,500 students were admitted for the academic year 1395/96 (2016/17) which began on 15 September 2016, on top of the 1,200 students already studying there.
The education department managed to enrol a total of 34,000 additional students and pupils from returnee families in schools all over the province. Its officials told AAN that the students were enrolled based on different conditions. For example, 2,000 were accepted based on school documents from Afghan schools in Pakistan. Another 16,000, between grades one and six, were enrolled unconditionally, ie without presenting any papers. The remaining 16,000 students had been temporarily enrolled for three months. After that, the education ministry would test them to ascertain their level and formally enrol them. A local source in an international organization in Nangrahar who follows the issue also confirmed these figures.
The education department has received support from both international non-governmental organisations and the United Nations. The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) hired 120 new teachers for this academic year, while the United Nations Fund for Children (UNICEF) added 50 more teachers for children who are living in tents in different areas along the Torkham-Jalalabad highway, with a hundred more teachers to come. The education department officials told AAN that both UNICEF and the NRC provided stationary and 190 tents that could be used as schools, with 60 more promised.
Short-term relief and lack of economic opportunities
According to a document outlining support to the returnees that AAN received from the governor’s office in Nangrahar province, about 40 per cent of undocumented repatriates were given 350 USD per family by IOM and the World Food Programme (WFP) for food and shelter in the last six months of 2016. The government gave 100 million Afghanis from its own budget during the same period, and each family under this programme received 3,350 Afghanis (49.53 USD). Another batch of 7,000 families that returned early last year each received financial aid of 9,000 Afghanis (130 USD). Furthermore, it is added in the document, different NGOs, such as NRC, UNHCR, IOM, Danish Refugee Council, WFP, International Rescue Committee, Save the Children and UNICEF have provided assistance to the returnees in terms of food and shelter. The diverging amounts handed out to different groups of returnees indicate a degree of spontaneity in the reactions to a problem that had taken everyone involved by surprise and that has been triggered by bilateral Afghan-Pakistani tensions (see earlier AAN analysis here).
Such assistance, while welcome, also does not last long, and most families need to find their own income fast. Some of the returnees seek work as daily labourers, going to Talashi Square in Jalalabad city where employers usually look for mazdurkaran, the Afghan term for this widespread form of precarious employment. According to the IOM survey, an estimated 31 per cent of those intending to repatriate planned to be looking for daily wage labour, but even that kind of work is scarce. “Me and my friends hardly get a single job once a week,” said Zaman Gul, who is in his mid-40s. “When we were in Pakistan, we could find work sometimes six days, or at least a few days a week.” He said that other labourers told him that, before the returnees arrived, the labourers could find work, but now the chances had considerably decreased. Civil society activist Nur Agha Zwak backed up such testimony with figures. Between March and December 2016, he told AAN, the estimated number of day labourers in entire Jalalabad increased six fold, from about 300 to about 2,000. (Hakim Shehzad, head of the public works department, said that he lacked the data either to confirm or to challenge this estimate.)
There are vague plans from the local government to provide more job opportunities, but local government officials admitted that, so far, they had been unable to offer the returnees very much. The Nangrahar governor’s spokesman, Attaullah Khogiani, said that there were plans to utilise the existing skills of the professional and educated returnees, but he was unable to provide information on any specific job opportunities available to the repatriates.
Some returnees have brought over rickshaws from Pakistan to earn a livelihood in Jalalabad. According to a Pajhwok report there are now more than 9,000 of those tricycles in the city, many of them not registered with the traffic department. This has added to the traffic jams, as has the increased number of handcarts belonging to people trying to survive as sellers of fruit, vegetables and other items. While in the past it would take 30 minutes to drive from one end of the city to the other, people said it could now take over two hours. The local government now plans to provide number plates to registered rickshaws and to ban the unregistered ones from the city, in order to manage the city traffic better (read more here).
Not all returnees are poor. Some of those interviewed by the author in October 2016 had sold their businesses in Pakistan and planned to use the capital to start new businesses (or buy a home or a plot of land) or had managed to move their businesses from Pakistan to Jalalabad.
House rents and land prices
When returnees arrive, they often first try to find a house to rent and later try to buy or purchase land to construct a house of their own in the same neighbourhood. Most of the returnees prefer to live in Jalalabad city, or in its surrounding districts such as Surkh Rod, Behsud, Khogiani, Rudat and Ghanikhel. As a result, in many of these areas the rents and land prices have dramatically increased. (Land values in Afghanistan have already increased by 1,000 per cent in the urban areas since 2001, according to a report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).) According to a property dealer named Shakirullah, in the early summer of 2016 a four-roomed house could be rented for around 13,500 Afghani (200 USD), but by the end of 2016 it had become difficult to find such a home for less than 33,750 Afghani (500 USD). In the Ulfat Mena neighbourhood, close to the city, before the influx of returnees, rent for a three-roomed house was less than 10,000 rupees (100 USD); however, following the influx, they were being rented for 20,000 Pakistani rupees (roughly 200 USD). As a result, there is now a new trend among the rich to buy land and build houses so they can rent them out to returnees. Those well-off consider it a booming business and a good opportunity for making quick and easy money. This further fuels the hikes in rent and in land prices. For all but the rich among the returnees, the price hikes in land prices and rent has made it difficult to find a new home.
Returnees who cannot afford to rent a house or buy land either move in with relatives in Nangrahar or, if they do not have some, jointly rent a house with other returnees. In the Daman area, also known as Qasemabad, a hillside in the Behsud district, to the northeast of Jalalabad, residents told AAN that there were hardly any households in the neighbourhood that were not hosting at least one returnee family from Pakistan. “I have three rooms in my house and two returnee families living with me,” a local journalist, Amin Zahir, told AAN, adding that the returnees did not pay rent because they were relatives. Shayesta Khan, an Afghan returnee, who returned last October, his three brothers and their families jointly rented a four-roomed house for 12,000 rupees (115 US dollars) per month, with each brother paying a portion according to his ability. The brothers are originally from Qarghayi district of Laghman, and have no relatives in Nangrahar.
As more and more people are seeking to invest in land and houses in order to rent them to returnees, owners have been able to push up the price of land. For example, in the Yawolasema Wiyala area in Behsud district, which is very close to Jalalabad city, one biswa (100 square metres) of land was sold for 168,750 Afghani (2,500 USD) in the early summer of 2016. In January 2017, one biswa in the same area cost between 303,750 and 405,000 Afghanis (4,500 and 6,000 USD). In the Ghauchak area, also close to the city, property dealers said the price for one biswa had increased from 337,500 to 540,000 Afghanis (5,000 to 8,000 USD).
Additionally, local people are now selling farmland, which is then turned into residential property, diminishing the area of arable land in one of Afghanistan’s most fertile provinces. The Afghan news agency, Pajhwok, reported in December 2016 that in Behsud district about 80 per cent of the farmland had been sold to returnees. In the Yawolasema Wiyala area, according to civil society activist, Mal Shinwari, the proportion of land meant for agriculture had decreased for this reason.
The high demand for land plots has also provoked new land disputes and encouraged land grabs by individuals seeking either to sell onwards or to build houses for sale or rent.
In Daman district and others, the number of returnees has changed the local rich-poor dynamics as well as local hospitality patterns. In the recent past, people from other provinces who owned property in the area would still allow poor people to live in their houses for free. But with the arrival of so many returnees, the owners have started to rent out their houses. A local tribal elder Murad Gul complained that the hike in rent was eroding the traditional spirit of generosity among people, who in the past would help the poor by allowing them to use their houses for free.
The governor’s spokesman, Attaullah Khogyani, told AAN that a new mechanism had been put in place by the municipality to control high rents. Every owner, before renting out a house to someone, has to inform the community elders as well as the Afghan intelligence agency, the NDS, prior to the deal, in order to get security clearance and approval for renting the house to the client. However, local people told AAN they have not seen any instances where this mechanism has prevented rents from rising.
The governor’s spokesman also said that the authorities have asked returnees originally from other provinces, who make about 30 per cent of all of the returnees, to move there and use the facilities provided there by the respective local governments. The governor’s spokesman further said that, as a result of spring, no decrease has been seen among the returnees who were said to have settled in Nangarhar because of cold weather. This means that the reason for returnees to settle in this province was not only the weather.
Plans for new towns run into obstacles
Although there are now three new townships planned for returnees in Nangrahar, the provincial government is still struggling to cope with housing their huge numbers. One of the three is meant specifically for carpet weavers. This plan emerged on 10 October 2016 when President Ashraf Ghani signed a new order for three townships to be built for carpet weavers returning from Pakistan (the other two will be built in other provinces). The aim is to accommodate a class of artisans that made Afghan products famous worldwide, but had left the country en masse following the Soviet invasion, depriving Afghanistan of one of its trademark exports. Ghani said he also hoped that the carpet weavers could produce new employment opportunities in the country.
Nangrahar’s weaver township is supposed to be built in the Wech Tangi area of Behsud district, (see a report here). A month after the president’s announcement, on 10 November 2016, provincial officials visited the site, but no further steps to survey the area have yet been taken (here is the report). Of the other two returnee townships planned for Nangrahar, according to the provincial governor’s spokesman, Attaullah Khogyani, one will also be built in Wech Tangi (it has been named Khanaki) and the other in Kot district. The spokesman said the area for those townships has been identified but the actual survey has yet to begin (officials claimed it would start soon.)
New and old land conflicts
However, the record on actually getting land to returnees or others is not good. Land-grabbing by the powerful has been a persistent problem in Nangrahar – as elsewhere. (3) There are actually two existing townships marked out for returnees, Chamtala Township in Surkhrod district and Sheikh Misri town on the border between Surkhrod and Chaparhar districts. In Chamtala, 8,000 land plots were allocated for returnees in 2008 (see UNHCR report here), but about 3,000 of these were seized by local powerbrokers, according to the Director of the Refugees and Repatriation Department, Ghulam Haidar Faqirzai (see an Afghan media report here).
In Sheikh Misri, land plots for returnees were approved as early as 2005. According to civil society activists, local powerbrokers took over the land and the returnees were unable to obtain their plots. Even returnees with documents for land plots failed to obtain land, despite protesting several times in front of government institutions in Jalalabad (see here). Locals and returnees told AAN that certain former officials, such as former police chief of Nangrahar, Muhammad Zaman Ghamsharik (who was killed in a suicide attack in February 2010 and replaced by his brother, Aman Khairi), and other powerful figures had grabbed these plots. In addition, current parliament member Haji Zaher Qader also staked his claim in part of the township of Chamtala (see previous AAN dispatch here). In a meeting with governor Mohammad Gulab Mangal on 18 February 2017, deputy refugee minister, Ahmad Wali Hakimi said that a survey would soon be carried out to identify land that had been taken in the towns of Sheikh Misri and Chamtala (see here). It appears, however, that the government is still struggling to reclaim the land from the local powerful.
The problems in these two towns indicate that there could well be similar issues facing the planned townships as well. For example, Wech Tangi, on the road leading from Jalalabad to neighbouring Kunar province, is the place where the weavers’ township is to be built. It is a flat desert area, situated to the east of Jalalabad, which borders with Qarghayi district of Laghman to the north, Kuz Kunar district of Nangarhar to the east, the Jalalabad-Kunar Highway to the south and the Daman area to the west. At the moment, there is no water source in this area, and if the refugees are going to settle there they would need to dig wells for drinking water. According to several local sources (including local journalists, residents and political analysts who closely follow the issue), however, inhabitants from Wech Tangi have tried to prevent the government from building the two planned townships in their area. They are reportedly supported by provincial Jamiat strongman Hazrat Ali, Senate Chair Abdul Hadi Muslimyar and others, who have already prevented returnees from setting up tents there. Locals from the area said that these figures had encouraged people in the area not to allow the construction of a road connecting the two towns with Jalalabad because certain shops and houses would be destroyed in order to complete the road project. It was not clear if this was a real concern by the property owners or a tactic to delay work for more nefarious reasons.
There are also significant bureaucratic hurdles for returnees trying to obtain land deeds (see this AAN report) Land distribution under the MoRR is so poorly managed that the president, according to AAN sources, is planning to redraft existing legislation and move the administrative management of land distribution to the Afghanistan Independent Land Authority (Arazi, in Dari).
The problem of land grabbing has already had an effect on Afghan refugees in Pakistan, as news of it has spread among them. Deterred by the chance to run into conflict with local power holders, many have decided to stay put. This is certainly true in Balochistan, where no major incident of pressure from the Pakistani authorities has so far been reported, and where one Afghan told a BBC reporter the refugees there would not be returning because of this issue (see the report here).
Looking ahead: more returnees, more pressure
Locals and officials in Nangarhar told AAN they think that many more returnees expected this year will also try to settle in their province. Increasing numbers will result in more pressure on social services and the labour market, make rents and property prices rise further and might pit local populations against the newcomers. Already now, many are anxious about the number of unknown people now settled among them.
A lot will depend on whether those among the returning refugees from other Afghan provinces are planning to move back there, whether the Afghan government is able to motivate them to do so and whether the government can implement its new action plan. It was released in mid-March and was put together in coordination with UN and donor agencies. It focuses on six areas: immediate humanitarian assistance, documentation, access to basic services, land allocation and adequate housing. The plan is still being costed, said OCHA, and there may also be some re-drafting of laws. (4) However, in order to support the returnees, political will from the government will also be necessary. That will have to include a determination to go after the politically well-connected, local land grabbing mafia.
Edited by Kate Clark, Sari Kouvo, Martine Van Bijlert, Borhan Osman and Thomas Ruttig
(1) The 600,000 returnees include 248,189 people who did not have identity papers and who were registered by IOM. Most of these ‘undocumented’ Afghans have been forced to leave Pakistan (see this AAN dispatch). The 600,000 figure also includes 370,000 Afghans with identity cards who were registered by the UNHCHR). Most of these ‘documented’ Afghans were happy to return, although pressure was put on them to do so ( see AAN previous analysis here)
(2) According to a UNHCR spokesman, Qaisar Afridi, the rate of Afghans returning picked up due to “tight security measures at the Torkham border by the Pakistani government, alleged harassment of Afghan refugees by Pakistani police, doubling the per person payment of financial aid to the returnees from 200 to 400 USD by UNHCR and the ‘Khpal Watan Gul Watan’ (One’s own country is the lovely homeland) campaign by the Afghan government in Pakistan.” Human Rights Watch, in its February 2017 report, explained that the returns were due to a “campaign of abuses and threats” by the Pakistani authorities (further details in this previous AAN analysis). According to Human Rights Watch, the doubling of UNHCR’s cash grant to returnees has been “critical” in persuading Afghan refugees to leave Pakistan (see for instance this report). UNHCR, however, disagreed. On 27 January, the agency wrote to Human Rights Watch, saying that, although it shares Human Rights Watch’s “concerns regarding the reported push factors affecting the repatriation from Pakistan,” it “strongly refutes the claim that increasing the cash grant constituted promotion of return,” and that UNHCR “provides support to refugees who make the decision to [return] based on a well-informed consideration of best options.”
(3) This is not just a problem in Nangrahar. All over Afghanistan, displaced Afghans have returned home and sought to reclaim the land they previously owned. This Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction report quoted a senior official at the Afghanistan Land Authority (Arazi, in Dari) saying that “approximately 60 percent of all corruption in the Afghan judiciary involves land ownership.” The SIGAR report further stated that the hundreds of thousands who have not been able to reclaim their land have resorted to squatting on the outskirts of urban areas in informal settlements that are unrecognized by the government.
(4) OCHA wrote:
In mid-March, the Displacement and Returns Executive Committee (DiREC) and National Cabinet endorsed a comprehensive Action Plan to accompany the Policy Framework on IDPs and Returnees adopted in January. The Executive Committee facilitates joint humanitarian and development planning and brings together Government, UN and Donor agency efforts focusing on six key response areas, including: the provision of immediate humanitarian assistance, documentation, access to basic services, land allocation and adequate housing. A costing exercise outlining the financial requirements of each goal is in the process of being finalised along with plans to replace Presidential Decree 104 with a draft Technical Procedure for the Provision of Land to Returnees and IDPs.