The migration of Afghan returnees from Pakistan made headlines most recently in 2016, when over 600,000 people returned to Afghanistan, in large part due to an increase in pressure on the part of Pakistani authorities for Afghans to return to their country. This influx of people was met with a similar influx of money and services to support them. The flow of both families and funding has slowed in recent years, though the challenge of providing useful services to returnees remains. Many people who have come back to Afghanistan from Pakistan find themselves returning to a country they never lived in before, or one that has changed dramatically since they last have. Without knowledge of the area or many local connections, they understandably seek out assistance in establishing their new lives.
That returnees need support and services to help them reintegrate into Afghanistan is widely acknowledged and the default perspective of most service providers, including international organisations. However, returnees are also in a position to contribute to the communities where they settle, specifically through participation in the local economy. This viewpoint— that returnees are sources of potential rather than simply in need—is less common, though for that reason, perhaps more important.
In early 2020 MAGENTA and UNDP undertook two studies that, together, comprised both perspectives.
One study documents the perspectives, skills, capacities, and livelihood aspirations of Afghans who have returned from Pakistan in the last three years, with the aim of identifying opportunities for these returnees to contribute to and participate in their communities in Afghanistan. The full findings from that study are presented in an accompanying report, A Source of Potential,1 and are mentioned where relevant in the conclusion of this document.
The second study, which is presented here, maps the journey that Afghans take in their return from Pakistan, and the services they need or access along the way, with the aim of identifying gaps in service provision. Together, these studies seek to identify approaches to promote the sustainable and community-based reintegration of Afghan returnees, which is critical for the long-term development of Afghanistan.
The findings from this research clearly show that returnees face barriers to reintegration that are linked to the limited services they have access to and receive. In particular, lack of employment support and lack of housing are main barriers to reintegration. Services available to returnees in transit and at their destination are insufficient in terms of quality, quantity, and reliability. Throughout their journey from Pakistan to their destination in Afghanistan, returnees repeatedly did not have consistent access to services they needed. This included even very basic services, such as shelter, but also longer-term services, such as education for their children. Returnees were often asked for bribes and experienced other forms of corruption when trying to access services. When returnees were able to access services, they reported that the services were often insufficient—especially for large families—that access was contingent on having local connections, the services were not dependable or on time, and that the services varied in terms of quality and utility; undocumented returnees and women— especially female headed households—also faced additional difficulties in accessing services.
Another limitation that emerged from the research was the absence of consistent and or reliable information about services—including that services exist in the first place. Many returnees rely—implicitly or explicitly—on people around them to pass along information about services available, those these individuals may not have complete information themselves. This was the case both for community leaders, and for people such as drivers and guides with whom returnees interacted while in transit.
The high expectations of returnees vis-à-vis service provision, relative to the actual services available and provided, also led to disappointment and frustration on the part of returnees. Indeed, even while in Pakistan many returnees had heard promising anecdotes about the services provided by NGOs and the Government in Afghanistan, which in some cases contributed to their decision to return. In many cases, returnees felt that service providers had promised support and assistance that never materialised, widening the gap between expectations and reality.
Service providers were generally aware of these gaps and limitations and acknowledged that demand for services exceeds what they are able to supply.
Limited and absent services—and in particular the lack of employment opportunities and lack of housing—have made it more difficult for returnees to integrate into communities in Afghanistan. In some cases, returnees received assistance and support from local neighbours, but in other cases they’ve been met with discrimination and resentment linked to, for example, limited job opportunities.
The findings of this study further highlight the relevance of the findings from the complementary research study on the potential of returnees to contribute to their communities. Given that formal service provision is insufficient, it is all the more important to focus the services that do exist on supporting returnees to make their own contribution to the community, and assisting not only themselves, but also those around them. Moreover, enabling returnees to participate in the local economy though paid work is critical to ensure returnees’ successful re-integration in Afghanistan, and the long-term development of the country.
This study aligns with UNDP’s vision that national development must be tackled with a long-term approach that integrates migration and displacement, both of which will present a challenge for Afghans for the foreseeable future. The research forms part of UNDP’s ongoing efforts to work with local, national, and international partners to address migration and displacement though a lens of development, as outlined in the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, the Global Compact for Migration, the Global Compact on Refugees, the Global Forum for Migration and Development, the Platform on Disaster Displacement, the Plan of Action for the Guiding Principles for Internal Displacement (GP20), and other fora on migration and development.
UNDP is working with IOM and UNHCR to support people affected by displacement and their host communities by supporting multiple levels of government to mainstream migration into their development plans; address the root causes of displacement and migration; promote resiliencebased development that is sustainable and localised for each community.