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Study highlights socio-economic challenges faced by Afghan returnees

Study highlights socio-economic challenges faced by Afghan returnees

A lack of jobs, safe drinking water, accessible health care, education and housing are the main obstacles to the return and reintegration of Afghan refugees, says a recent report by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
3 September 2007
Water is scarce; over half of interviewed Afghans said they had no access to safe drinking water.

KABUL, Afghanistan, September 3 (UNHCR) - A lack of jobs, safe drinking water, accessible health care, education and housing are the main obstacles to the return and reintegration of Afghan refugees, according to a recent report by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC).

Titled "Economic and Social Rights in Afghanistan II," the report released last week is the second of its kind by AIHRC and the UN refugee agency to assess the Afghan government's ability to advance and protect the economic and social rights of its citizens. But with a high number of former refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) among those interviewed, the findings also provide valuable insight into the major challenges faced by returnees.

During the assessment period of January to December 2006, UNHCR's financial and technical assistance enabled AIHRC to have significant field presence throughout the country and to benefit from the agency's global experience in monitoring returnee communities.

Over 11,000 people were interviewed in 32 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. More than half (54 percent) were returnees - former refugees and former IDPs. The benchmark for the survey was the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which Afghanistan ratified in 1983.

"Full integration of returnees and a permanent peace closely and directly depend on the realization of economic, social and cultural rights, even if this is only to the level of the minimum standards set by the ICESCR," said Sima Samar, chairman of the AIHRC.

The vast majority (over 85 percent) of those interviewed listed job opportunities, access to safe drinking water, improvement of health and education facilities, and housing as their top priorities for the future - overshadowing security (4 percent) and justice (3.1 percent).

Specifically, the study confirmed an alarming level of chronic or transient food shortages, with only 37.7 percent of interviewees stating that their household has a stable income source and 60.3 percent living below the poverty line of US$1 a day. More than half of the interviewees said they do not have access to safe drinking water.

While health care facilities were found to be generally available, Afghanistan continues to have one of the world's highest infant and maternal mortality rates. Many of the interviewees said they do not use the services due to the poor physical access and staff quality; 65 percent did not approach skilled health personnel during the birth of their last child.

Similarly, although interviewees reported that primary education was generally available in their area, one-third said their children were not attending school. Parents of girls cited the distance to school and security concerns while boys are kept out of school in order to work. The study also shows a significant discrepancy in the percentage of girls and boys completing primary education. Just over half of girls who start primary school are able to complete it, while for boys the figure is 80 percent.

With regards to child labour, over one-third of all those interviewed had at least one working child in the family. Among them, nearly half said that most or all of their children work, while 31 percent said their children's work is the only source of income for the family.

The lack of housing is also a key obstacle to return and reintegration, affecting 67.1 percent of interviewed returnees who chose not to return to their places of origin, 67.3 percent who left their places of origin and 43.4 percent of interviewed IDPs in protracted displacement. Furthermore, for 32.8 percent of returnees, the lack of housing was the main cause of dissatisfaction after returning to their places of origin.

While the findings indicate major challenges for the Afghan government to provide socio-economic rights to its people, the majority (78.8 percent) of those interviewed said they remain positive about the future - a sign of the Afghan people's resilience through decades of conflict.

Nonetheless, much remains to be done. "Despite all efforts made by the government, this report shows that Afghanistan needs more time to reach sustainable reintegration for those who have come home," said Salvatore Lombardo, UNHCR's representative in Afghanistan.

In response to the findings, AIHRC is urging the Afghan government to ensure a rights-based approach to the National Development Strategy and Afghanistan Compact. It has also called for more focus on the situation of vulnerable groups, including returnees who have to rebuild their lives after years in exile.

By Mohammed Nader Farhad in Kabul, Afghanistan