For returning Afghans, short-term employment can have long-term benefits
PASHTO ZARGHON, Afghanistan, Jan 4 (UNHCR) - Four years after the fall of the Taliban, the return of Afghan refugees to their homeland continues to be the largest organized movement of people in the world. In 2005 alone, some 700,000 Afghans opted to return. But the challenges still facing the country mean that for many the journey home to this largely rural country is followed by another migration towards the towns and cities, as men and boys search for work and a means of supporting their families.
In the villages of Pashton Zarghon, a district in the western province of Herat, elders estimate that up to half of the male population leaves in search of work during the winter.
"My two sons left for Herat city two months ago," says 55-year-old Habibullah, who, like many men in this harsh country, looks older than his years. "Each year, at this time, they leave to try and find work as labourers on construction sites. Twice they've tried to enter Iran, but each time they were deported."
Aware of the difficulties former refugees can face on their return to Afghanistan, the UN refugee agency funds a number of programmes designed to assist their reintegration into their former communities. In 2005, nearly 24,000 families were provided with materials to help them rebuild damaged or destroyed homes. Hundreds of water points were constructed in areas with large numbers of returnees, while across the country communities, like those in Pashton Zarghon, have benefited from cash-for-work programmes.
Habibullah was among those chosen to take part in a recent UNHCR project to repair badly eroded roads linking three villages in the district. A total of 750 men were each given one week's work, earning US$ 3.50 a day. The individual sums may be small, but the overall impact of such projects is significant.
As well as creating access to much-needed employment, the three month project restored roads which had been virtually impassable for nearly two decades, improving both economic and social links between the communities.
"The implementation of these projects not only creates short-term job opportunities for vulnerable villagers," says Madhi Hussaini, UNHCR's Senior Field Assistant in Herat. "They also mean that fewer men have to leave to look for work. The result of the work then improves living conditions for the community as a whole."
The men who participated in the Pashton Zarghon cash-for-work project were selected by a local council, or shura. Forty-five men worked for six days each before making way for the next group. "It's difficult at times to convince the men that they must give others a chance to work," says Mohammed Nader, the foreman on the project. "Each man would like to do this type of work for as long as possible." Nader speaks from experience. Without farmland of his own, he has earned a reputation as a traveller, as a result of his long absences working away from home.
During the past year, UNHCR cash-for-work projects have created more than 90,000 days of employment, benefiting some 82,000 vulnerable individuals. The refugee agency also supports income generation projects that help returnees create longer-term livelihoods through the provision of vocational training and start-up materials.
By Fayazuddin Siddiqi in Pashto Zarghon, Afghanistan