UNHCR helps hundreds of homeless returnees in arid wastes of northern Afghanistan

News Stories, 2 September 2009

© UNHCR/W.Shellemberg
The temporary camp is located in a remote and desolate area of northern Afghanistan.

MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan, September 2 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency has set up a special tented camp in a desolate and arid region of northern Afghanistan to accommodate hundreds of long-term Afghan refugees who have been returning to their homeland in recent weeks.

Some 650 refugees have repatriated from a camp in Iran over the past month and another 880 are expected to return by mid-September. Most are nomadic Kuchi people of Baloch ethnicity and many fled to Iran during the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

The returnees were transferred from Bardsir camp in south-east Iran's Kerman province to a temporary tented settlement set up by the UN refugee agency in the Sozma Qala district of northern Afghanistan's Sar-e-Pol province.

The returnees hailed from the area but their homes had either been destroyed or collapsed after years of neglect. The local authorities provided a strip of land to be used to shelter the returnees while UNHCR, its partners and local officials worked tirelessly under tough environmental, security and logistical conditions to set up the facility and bring in aid.

"Returning to this remote and desolate place, they [the refugees] are defying nature with their tireless determination to start anew," said Aurvasi Patel, head of UNHCR's office in Mazar-e-Sharif. "With winter fast approaching, reintegration of these families will be a major challenge."

"It has been a real challenge for us to erect a transit camp and provide basic [water, education and health] services in such a desolate area," said Alessandra Morelli, UNHCR's interim deputy representative in Afghanistan, adding that the operation had been a real team effort.

Other partners involved included the World Health Organization, the UN Children' Fund, the International Organization for Migration and the World Food Programme (WFP). The Italian government, meanwhile, funded an airlift of aid for the camp, including winter tents, kitchen sets and portable warehouses, which arrived in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif on Sunday.

© UNHCR/W.Shellemberg
A returnee tends to his moped, which could be very useful in this isolated region.

Meanwhile, UNHCR is examining the longer term issues and challenges for the returning population, including housing, water and livelihoods needs. Under a cooperation agreement with the refugee agency, WFP will provide the returnees with food and income-generation opportunities through food for work projects.

"The settlement is a temporary solution to allow people to have a shelter while they are rebuilding their homes in nearby villages," UNHCR's Morelli explained. Many homes were destroyed by conflict, while others have suffered from years of neglect.

UNHCR is reviewing its country programme in light of the evolving situation in Afghanistan, which is witnessing an increasing trend of displacement. This includes returnees unable to return to their place of origin and in need of an emergency response.