In the two months since the resumption of the United Nations voluntary repatriation programme more than 5,500 Afghan refugees have been able to return home. Meeting the immediate needs of the returnees is the result of enhanced cooperation between the UN programmes and agencies based in Kabul.
“We came back because this is our country and we want to have a bright future. I am very happy to come back and I want to finish my school here and go to a university,” Amir Khan, 20, told UNAMA at the UN Agency (UNHCR) Encashment Centre in Kabul.
Khan was just 11 when his family left Kabul for Islamabad. He returned to Afghanistan today on a bright red, yellow and blue delivery truck typical in Pakistan, with three families and their possessions in sacks.
“I am happy to come back because I am old and want to die in my own country and in my own village. Our tribe is here,” said Khan’s 70-year-old grandmother.
Since 2002, over 3.6 million Afghans returned home from Pakistan and nearly 1 million from Iran with assistance from the Government, UN and their partners while a million have returned on their own.
“There are around three million registered Afghan refugees still outside the country. Pakistan and Iran have generously hosted the large refugee populations worldwide for three decades,” said Nadir Farhad, Assistant Public Information Officer with the UNHCR office in Kabul.
The UN’s effort to assist voluntary repatriation is aligned with the Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS) created by the Government of Afghanistan.
The repatriation process at the centre is fast and operates like an assembly line. Returnees such as Khan and his family start by verifying their voluntary repatriation forms – documents used to cross the border signed by UNHCR in Peshwar – with UNHCR in Kabul and showing their Afghan Proof of Registration cards.
Next, the family shifts to a second room where they undergo a tutorial on mine awareness. Many returnees take land that has not been built on for decades. About 50 people are killed or hurt each month by landmines and explosives remnants of war (ERW) in Afghanistan, according to the UN Mine Action Service of the Department of Peacekeeping. Approximately half of the victims are children collecting firewood and scrap metal.
The mine-awareness tutorials are organized by the non-government organization OMAR with coordination from the UN-supported Mine Action Coordination Centre of Afghanistan (MACCA).
“I am thankful to these people for making me aware of land mines. I had not seen anything like this before and from now we will try to avoid them and live safely,” said recent returnee Fawlad, 45.
The next stop is a vaccination centre run by doctors from the Ministry of Health with support from the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF). There, children under five years of age receive polio vaccinations and youth under 12 are vaccinated for measles. The vaccinations are supplied by the UN World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF.
These vaccinations are in line with the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as well as a national strategy articulated by the Government to reduce child deaths by two-thirds.
A fourth step is to collect money. Each returnee is given about USD150 per person, which includes an allowance to cover travel expenses to Kabul.
Finally, returnees may also register for land in the central region, but the demand for land is great and the waiting list long.
Many returnees arrive at old properties which no longer have adequate housing. For this reason UNHCR plans to build 20,000 houses for returnees this year, bringing to 220,000 the number of homes constructed since 2002.
“It will be difficult to settle back. We will build our houses gradually,” Khan said. His family plans to build on ancestral land in the Qarabagh district outside of Kabul.
In addition to housing, some returnees receive temporary employment. The UNHCR and the Government collaborate on a number of programs, including cash-for-work activities such as canal cleaning. Women who head households can enroll in dairy, poultry and beekeeping projects.
“We came back because we heard the fighting stopped. We want peace in our country and if the government is good we will have it definitely,” said Baba, 50.
Despite the hope of returning home, some family members - such as 13-year-old Naseer - have reservations, “I miss the friends that I left in Pakistan.”
By UNAMA Kabul
Hear more from returning refugees on UNAMA Radio’s programme this week. Afghanistan Today (Afghanistan Emroz) broadcasts on national broadcaster RTA FM.105.2 (Radio Television Afghanistan) on Saturdays at 9:05am.