Hope trumps hardship as Afghan refugees return home

After decades in Pakistan, 22,000 Afghans have gone home with UNHCR help in just the last month.

On trucks loaded with their animals and household possessions, Afghan families leave the UNHCR voluntary repatriation centre in Peshawar for Afghanistan.  © UNHCR/R.Ali

PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN, April 23 (UNHCR) - After spending his entire life in exile, 23-year-old Romal can barely contain his excitement at the prospect of getting a fresh start in his real homeland - Afghanistan.

Eagerly boarding a bus headed for the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, he joins the ranks of 22,000 Afghans who have opted to return home from Pakistan since repatriation resumed a month ago, after the winter recess.

"My uncle returned two years ago to Kabul and is now asking me to help him run his business," he says at UNHCR's voluntary repatriation centre. "I will be working in his small restaurant in Kabul."

Romal's parents fled Afghanistan before he was born and settled near Peshawar, where the young man has recently been working in a grocery store to help support his family.

He's been to Afghanistan to visit a few times, but "this time the feeling is different," he says with a broad smile as he struggles to secure a place for himself, his parents, two brothers, and a sister amidst the mattresses, pots, televisions, and refrigerators crammed onto the colorfully-decorated bus.

Despite his eagerness to go home, he confesses to a twinge of early nostalgia as he leaves behind the life he built in exile: "I am already missing my friends in Pakistan and have invited them to visit me in Kabul."

While Romal is lured home by the sense of opportunity, other refugees passing through UNHCR's voluntary repatriation centers in Peshawar or Baleli, Balochistan, in recent weeks cite rising living costs, scarce jobs and the difficult security situation in Pakistan as key reasons for return.

Fifty-year-old Musa Khan has lived almost thirty years in Pakistan, most recently in the Punjabi city of Taxila where he has eked out a living as a daily wage laborer. Now, he says, it is time to go home.

"Things are getting very expensive day by day. Every day I go to the market but cannot find work. I cannot afford to pay rent anymore," he says as he marshals his wife, two sons and three daughters through the deregistration procedures at the Chamkani voluntary repatriation centre in Peshawar.

His economic woes have been compounded by the difficult security situation, he says. "Sometimes the Pakistani police stop us [Afghans] while we are going to work and they ask many questions. Once my brother was put in a cell but was later released."

Musa is heading back to his village in Nangarhar province, eastern Afghanistan, where he owns a piece of land in his village. "I plan to sell a small portion of it and use the money to build a two-roomed house," he says. "My two sons are also going to help me in rebuilding my house."

Whatever their reasons for return, these Afghans will need all the resilience they've shown as refugees to rebuild their lives at home, says Mengesha Kebede, UNHCR's representative in Pakistan.

"Afghanistan has absorbed a fifth of its population in returning refugees over the past nine years and many still face shortages of housing, jobs, schools and clinics as well as security problems," he said.

"To ensure their return is sustainable, the refugees will need the support of their government and international donors to provide reintegration opportunities," Kebede added.

Each Afghan returning with UNHCR's assistance receives a cash grant averaging about $100, depending on the distance to their areas of origin. The grant is given out to returning refugees at one of four UNHCR encashment centers in Afghanistan.

Now in its ninth year, UNHCR's voluntary repatriation programme to Afghanistan is the agency's largest return operation around the world. Since it began in 2002, more than 3.5 million Afghans have returned home from Pakistan and 865,000 from Iran with UNHCR's help.

Some 1.7 million registered Afghans remain in Pakistan. Last month, the Pakistan government agreed to the extension of their temporary stay in the country until the end of 2012.

By Rabia Ali
In Peshawar, Pakistan