Afghan Conference: After the journey home, the challenges ahead

News Stories, 2 May 2012

© UNHCR/M.Farhad
Elders of the village of Mahajer Qashlaq in northern Afghanistan gather to discuss progress made in a joint UNHCR-Afghan government initiative to support sustainable reintegration of refugees.

MAHAJER QASHLAQ, Afghanistan, May 1 (UNHCR) A new initiative by the UN refugee agency and the Afghan government is seeking to improve the sustainable reintegration of former refugees with a focus on helping returnees to support themselves.

In the village of Mahajer Qashlaq, in northern Afghanistan, community elders recently discussed the strategy and its community-based approach with the head of UNHCR's operations in the region.

"We are entering a new stage in the return and reintegration of Afghan refugees," UNHCR's Martin Bucumi told the gathering. "We know that finding proper work is a key issue."

Concentrating initially on the 19 provinces where the majority of Afghan refugees have returned home after years of exile, and where others are expected to return in the future, the projects are designed to provide essential services such as health and sanitation, education, and water; but also to improve local economic opportunities, help young people find work and to help communities to live in harmony together.

Four years ago, when some 200 refugee families returned to Mahajer Qashlaq from Pakistan the area was desolate and barren with no shelter, no safe drinking water, no school and no health clinic.

"We were thankful for the initial help we received from UNHCR," said Mullah Ghulam Rasoul, deputy head of the village shura (council). "But it was not enough. We needed work, we needed to earn money, we needed to know that we could support our families."

Afghanistan's Minister for Refugees and Reintegration Jamaher Anwary said it was because of these unmet needs that, working with UNHCR, he revised the country's reintegration policy.

Under the initiative, Mahajer Qashlaq became one of 48 sites identified by UNHCR and the ministry for assistance. Since work began last year more than 100 new shelters, a deep water well, two reservoirs, an eight-room school and an upgraded road have been constructed in the village. Two hundred returnee women have also learned how to spin wool and a new community centre provides a place for them to discuss issues concerning them and their families.

Word of the improvements in the village is travelling beyond the community. "I know of at least 150 families from Mahajer Qashlaq who are still refugees in Pakistan and they have been carefully following developments here," said Haji Sahib Khan. "They are now interested in returning later this year."

Together with UNHCR, the refugee ministry has entered discussions with the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in order to draw on that agency's expertise in long-term development projects.

Other Afghan ministries as well as non-governmental organizations have been drawn into the initiative. "Now is the time for the government to make a collective effort that involves government, civil society and the international community in order to strongly support national programmes, especially for Afghan returnees and the communities in which they live," said Peter Nicolaus, UNHCR's representative in Afghanistan.

In January 2012, the Afghan government signed an inter-governmental agreement in Dubai with the governments of Iran and Pakistan to help find long-term solutions for Afghan refugees and returnees. This strategy will be officially presented to the international community at a two-day conference starting Wednesday in Geneva.

"The most pressing need is for increased support from key donor countries to invest long term in those national development programmes where the needs are greatest livelihoods, food, shelter, education, sanitation and basic infrastructure," said Minister Anwary. "By doing that, they will improve the return and reintegration prospects for former refugees in Afghanistan."

By Mohammed Nader Farhad in Mahajer Qashlaq, Afghanistan




UNHCR country pages


UNHCR works with the country of origin and host countries to help refugees return home.

Afghanistan: Rebuilding a War-Torn Country

The cycle of life has started again in Afghanistan as returnees put their shoulders to the wheel to rebuild their war-torn country.

Return is only the first step on Afghanistan's long road to recovery. UNHCR is helping returnees settle back home with repatriation packages, shelter kits, mine-awareness training and vaccination against diseases. Slowly but surely, Afghans across the land are reuniting with loved ones, reconstructing homes, going back to school and resuming work. A new phase in their lives has begun.

Watch the process of return, reintegration, rehabilitation and reconstruction unfold in Afghanistan through this gallery.

Afghanistan: Rebuilding a War-Torn Country

Rebuilding Lives in Afghanistan

With elections scheduled in October, 2004 is a crucial year for the future of Afghanistan, and Afghans are returning to their homeland in record numbers. In the first seven months of 2004 alone, more than half a million returned from exile. In all, more than 3.6 million Afghans have returned since UNHCR's voluntary repatriation programme started in 2002.

The UN refugee agency and its partner organisations are working hard to help the returnees rebuild their lives in Afghanistan. Returnees receive a grant to cover basic needs, as well as access to medical facilities, immunisations and landmine awareness training.

UNHCR's housing programme provides tool kits and building supplies for families to build new homes where old ones have been destroyed. The agency also supports the rehabilitation of public buildings as well as programmes to rehabilitate the water supply, vocational training and cash-for-work projects.

Rebuilding Lives in Afghanistan

The Reality of Return in Afghanistan

Beyond the smiles of homecoming lie the harsh realities of return. With more than 5 million Afghans returning home since 2002, Afghanistan's absorption capacity is reaching saturation point.

Landmine awareness training at UNHCR's encashment centres – their first stop after returning from decades in exile – is a sombre reminder of the immense challenges facing this war-torn country. Many returnees and internally displaced Afghans are struggling to rebuild their lives. Some are squatting in tents in the capital, Kabul. Basic needs like shelter, land and safe drinking water are seldom met. Jobs are scarce, and long queues of men looking for work are a common sight in marketplaces.

Despite the obstacles, their spirit is strong. Returning Afghans – young and old, women and men – seem determined to do their bit for nation building, one brick at a time.

Posted on 31 January 2008

The Reality of Return in Afghanistan

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