As winter approaches, what will happen to Afghanistan’s returning refugees?


With 2.7 million people outside of the country, Afghanistan currently produces the second largest number of refugees in the world after Syria.

But this year hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees, who escaped conflict and violence in their home country for relative peace and stability abroad, have come back home.

Although the EU recently spearheaded a deal – described by Amnesty International as ‘sordid’ and ‘immoral’ – that will essentially see Afghanistan receive billions of dollars in aid in exchange for the repatriation of failed Afghan asylum seekers, the overwhelming majority of refugees are returning from Pakistan.

Some 1.5 million Afghans have been living in the country as registered refugees for decades, according to the United National High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This year alone, 400,000 of them have returned to their homeland.

Data from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reveals that 230,003 refugees and an additional 182,669 undocumented migrants returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan between 1 January and 8 October 2016. Many more are expected over the coming months.

Afghan refugees first arrived in Pakistan during various waves of mass migration – escaping the Soviet invasion in the 1980s, the bloody civil war of the 1990s and later, the brutal Taliban regime which continues in parts of Afghanistan to this day.

But now they, and an additional one million undocumented Afghans thought to be living in Pakistan, are returning home in record numbers.

In a bid to get tough on terrorism in the aftermath of a horrific attack on an army-run school in December 2014 – purportedly by Afghanistan-based insurgents – Pakistani authorities announced that all Afghan refugees would have to leave Pakistan, initially by the end of this year. That deadline was recently extended to 31 March 2017.

Bank accounts are being closed and the mobile phone lines of refugees are being disconnected according to the Economist. But instead of appealing to allow refugees to stay in Pakistan, the Afghanistan government has launched a campaign to lure them back home for good.

Using the slogan Kphal Watan-Gul Watan (which translates into English as “Own land, sweet land”), the Afghanistan government is hoping the repatriates will help with efforts to rebuild the country after decades of war.

The UNHCR also recently increased the incentive for refugees from Pakistan to return home by upping the amount of compensation for each registered returnee from US$200 to US$ 380 – a figure greater than the average monthly salary in Afghanistan.


Winter’s approaching

But there are major concerns. The UN’s Initial Rapid Needs Assessment found that due to the sudden and overwhelming influx of people, local resources and basic services in Afghanistan have become dangerously overstretched. There is a shortage of housing and an estimated 126,000 children are suffering from malnutrition.

There are also major concerns about what will happen to these returned refugees now that winter is approaching. Temperatures in Afghanistan can plummet to as low as -10°C compared to Pakistan where temperatures are milder. Most returnees are not equipped for the cold winter and NGOs are facing a race against time to get people the shelter, blankets and warm clothes they need.

Fifty-year-old Gul Rahman was a teenager when he moved to the city of Peshawar in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of northern Pakistan. Although both his parents are buried there, Rahman recently returned to his native home in eastern Afghanistan with a family of his own.

“I am relieved and happy to be back in my own country. I never had this feeling [as a refugee] in Pakistan, particularly over the last few months when the police started humiliating and looting us everyday,” he tells Equal Times.

However, like hundreds of his newly repatriated neighbours in the open-air tent camp in eastern Laghman province in Afghanistan, Rahman and his family are in dire need of help.

“Some of us got the cash [from UNHCR] but many others did not because they were not registered as refugees. Now we are living here without any clean drinking water or other basis resources,” he says.

Coming back to a country that many of these refugees either left as children or have never even been to is also hard. Some people have lost their ancestral land to families that stayed on, while others are simply struggling to reintegrate after so many years abroad.

Malik Sedique is an elderly Afghan repatriate hailing from Logar province in the east, where many areas are still under Taliban rule. He is worried about the future of his children.

“Three of my sons and my two daughters had to abruptly quit their studies in Pakistan because of the current situation. Now I am confused as to where to enrol them for school,” he says.

In Pakistan, children are educated in English and Urdu while in Afghanistan, schooling mainly takes place in local Pashto and Dari (the Afghan dialect of Persian) languages.


Too little, too late

Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani has vowed to make sure that all returning Afghan refugees are warmly welcome and properly integrated. Earlier this month, he inaugurated the first township exclusively for repatriated families in northern Parwan province.

But for Tila Mohammad, another recently repatriated Afghan with a family of nine, this is too little, too late.

He has chosen to set-up a tent for his family on the outskirts of the capital Kabul, where he works as labourer in the local market, rather than wait for government aid, which is hinder by bureaucracy and corruption.

“No one has come here to help us. You can see my hands; they are scarred and muddy. I have been working to erect boundary walls in this deserted area during the evening after coming home from work,” he tells Equal Times.

Luckily for Mohammed, some of his neighbours have stepped in to help. Mawlawi Tajuddin, an elder in Kabul’s Pul-i-Charki area, mobilised his local community to provide returning refugees like Mohammed with basic necessities such as tents, clothes and utensils.

“We have also accommodated some families in our own homes. The community members also provide them with food, water and all other things of their need open heartedly,” he tells Equal Times.

Hafeez Ahmad Miakhail, a spokesperson for Afghanistan’s Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation, assured Equal Times that all efforts are being made to help repatriated families before winter kicks in.

“Lands have been allocated for them in their native areas, and corresponding ministries and aid agencies are in consultation to chalk-out a comprehensive plan for their re-integration. For instance, in Kabul we have four townships where refugees will be settled but the allocation of land is a lengthy process and we are aiming to ensure transparency.”

Help could also be at hand thanks to the UN’s recently launched flash appeal for US$152 million to address the needs of Afghan’s returnee refugees, in addition to the 263,300 internally displaced persons that have been forced to flee their homes due to the ongoing violence across the country.

Stephen O’Brien, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief, visited Afghanistan on 7 September to urge the international community to scale-up their support. “This cyclical pattern of prolonged conflict must end to avoid another generation of children being lost to war and suffering,” he said.