Afghan Conference: After the journey home, the challenges ahead
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