Help Rebuild Former Refugees' Lives in Afghanistan

 
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Meet Sher Agha, who accompanied the UNHCR team.
Meet Sher Agha, who accompanied the UNHCR team.

Kochi Abad is a tiny village nestled on the side of a hill, about 12.5 miles outside of Kabul, Afghanistan. It's home to about 300 Kochi families (nomads), who were once refugees in Pakistan.

Thanks to the support from your donations, along with contributions from individuals and foundations around the world, UNHCR has been working to make life a little easier for those who return -- building a road, a well, some homes.

On a recent visit, Sher Agha, the village elder, took UNHCR around the village. Come along for the tour in the attached photos.

All photos © UNHCR / N.Bose.

  1. Kochi Abad can get awfully cold during the winter! UNHCR has funded some of the shelters you see in the background. The organization also built a road which helps connect this village to other cities, where many have found work.
  2. What everyday life is like in Kochi Abad, which has a school and a community center:
  3. These women are collecting water from a well funded by UNHCR. Water is life!
  4. Girls return home after a long day at school. Education for all is a top priority!
Families receive supplies in this photo from 2011,
Families receive supplies in this photo from 2011,

Last month, UNHCR has begun distribution of winter assistance to nearly quarter of a million people (40,000 families) in remote and inaccessible areas of Afghanistan, as well as in Kabul. The recipients are recent returnees from Pakistan and Iran, internally displaced people including people displaced by conflict and others at risk in the cold weather.

Winter temperatures in Afghanistan can fall to around -26°C and for this reason it is important that people are protected from the cold. UNHCR has primary responsibility for delivering winter assistance to returnees and vulnerable displaced people in rural areas of Afghanistan. Last winter, however, and because of difficult conditions in informal sites around Kabul, we also delivered help there. The work is a joint effort coordinated by the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation, OCHA, and the National Disaster Management Authority.

The relief items going out around the country include tents, blankets, plastic sheets, fuel, sleeping mats, lanterns, jerry cans, kitchen sets, soap and warm clothes. This year, 30,000 of those who will receive winter assistance will be people living in Kabul's informal settlements.

As well as providing help for the vulnerable, the winter distribution serves to mitigate against new displacement from rural communities where alternative support possibilities can otherwise be limited. Nearly 460,000 people have been displaced by conflict in Afghanistan. Most are in the south (137,000 persons), followed by the west (121,527) and east (95,134).

Returned refugees and internally displaced people often live in extremely bad conditions in isolated communities communities rarely seen by the general public and where access is very difficult. Those receiving our aid include really destitute returnees and IDP groups, families headed by women, or elderly or disabled, and children.

Since 2001, UNHCR has helped around 4.7 million Afghan refugees voluntarily return home. However, nearly three million registered Afghan refugees are still living in exile in Pakistan and Iran.

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Afghan refugees wait to return home by bus.
Afghan refugees wait to return home by bus.

More than 50,000 Afghan refugees have returned from exile in Pakistan and Iran so far this year, up more than 10% versus the same time period last year.

From January to August, UNHCR helped an average of 213 refugees repatriate every day compared to 190 a year earlier, when 45,000 returned in the first eight months. Of the 50,000 returnees this year, some 40,000 came from Pakistan and just over 10,000 from Iran.

About a third of the returning refugees went to the eastern provinces of Kabul and Nangarhar, with about 11% heading to Kunduz province in the north. The other most popular destinations were Herat, Baghlan, Kunar, Kandahar, Paktya, Balkh, Logar and Laghman provinces.

More than 5.7 million people have returned to Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban government in 2001. Around  some 4.6 million with UNHCR help. The return movement continues but more than 3 million people remain in exile, mostly in Pakistan and Iran. Many fled more than 20 years ago during the Soviet occupation, but large numbers were born in exile.

Many of those returning from Pakistan this year cited the high cost of living, especially food and fuel, increased competition for jobs and escalating security concerns in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The level of return from Iran, where 1 million Afghan refugees still live, remains stable.

UNHCR's representative in Afghanistan, Peter Nicolaus, praised the two neighbouring countries for hosting large numbers of refugees, while calling for "continued support [to Pakistan and Iran] from the international community to meet the demands of hosting such large numbers."

Whilst most of the returnees have gone to their places of origin, some have been unable to return to their home towns and villages for a variety of reasons, including lack of available land or shelter, few employment opportunities, food shortages and soaring prices.

UNHCR helps each returnee with a cash grant of about $150 to cover transportation and other expenses. The most vulnerable receive additional support according to their needs.

"While the humanitarian needs of returning refugees remain extensive, investments in long-term development programmes are required to enable sustainable return and reintegration and to improve Afghanistan's present limited capacity to effectively absorb future return," Nicolaus stressed.

This is the objective of a "solutions strategy" developed earlier this year by UNHCR and the governments of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. Key aims are to boost job opportunities and provide access to basic social services.

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Ghulam Sakhi, prior to returning to Afghanistan.
Ghulam Sakhi, prior to returning to Afghanistan.

Ghulam Sakhi was a refugee in Pakistan for 18 years until he returned with his family to their home in Baghlan province in May 2012. For 10 years he worked in a factory in the city of Harripur. When it closed, Sakhi became a laborer working for daily wages.

Ghulam and his family are among the nearly 4 million Afghan refugees UNHCR has assisted in returning home since 2002. UNHCR Senior Communications Officer Tim Irwin spoke to Sakhi shortly before he returned home from the northern city of Peshawar. Extracts from the interview:

Why are you going back to Afghanistan now?

I'm going back to Afghanistan because I have a job there with an agency that imports medical equipment. I am returning from Pakistan of my own free will because of my work. Before, I would travel back and forth between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Now, I am taking my family with me. I have two sons. I'll try to help them find work in a factory or a hospital so that they can earn money and rebuild their country.

What do you expect life to be like back home?

Well, 20 years ago when we left our country, there was war and conflict. But since then the situation has changed significantly. I hope, and God willing, the situation will further improve. We have the international community working there with us. They are helping and supporting us. With their continued support Afghanistan will stand on its own feet. The country is progressing.

What are your plans for the future?

I hope that we will progress in our business slowly and gradually, finding business opportunities for my sons and myself, just like other people. We hope God will give us the opportunity to run a business and serve our country.

With continued support from the international community, our country will develop further. I can't say what will happen after 2014, [when NATO troops are scheduled to leave Afghanistan] whether it would be good for the country or bad.

Can you describe what his life was like as refugee in Pakistan?

My life was good. I lived in peace and rented a house. I was working here. My children were studying in school. And now I am leaving voluntarily and happily.

I'm really happy with the people of Pakistan. They treated us just like their brothers and didn't make us feel that we were refugees.

Will you believe when I tell you that when we were leaving last night, all our neighbors  Pakistani women and men  were weeping and helping us to load this truck until midnight? I thanked them for their hospitality and sought their forgiveness if I had ever hurt them. They wished me luck and bid farewell. We had good times here.

What do you think is stopping other Afghan refugees from going home?

They are not going back because there are better economic opportunities here. Some drive trucks or work in factories. More might opt to return if the Proof of Registration cards [issued by the government to Afghan refugees and due to expire at the end of 2012] are not renewed and the police start harassing them.

They are happier here than they think they will be in Afghanistan. Here they have peace. Their children are going to schools. Most of the refugees are happy here.

We need better job opportunities inside Afghanistan. Once that's done, why would we go to Iran, Pakistan or foreign countries? If we could get a piece of bread at home, we don't need to go to other countries, endangering our lives, travelling by boats, walking in jungles.

Once conditions inside Afghanistan improve, the refugees will come back.

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Afghan families receiving winter aid in Dahsabz.
Afghan families receiving winter aid in Dahsabz.

More than 200,000 displaced Afghans received urgently-needed supplies this winter.

This past December, the UN Refugee Agency and its partners handed out blankets, plastic sheets, warm clothes and fuel to more than 300 families in the Dahsabz district of the Afghan capital, Kabul.

"This joint winter assistance program is vital for returnees and internally displaced people (IDPs) who are at particular risk during the cold winter months in Afghanistan," said Jamaher Anwary, the Afghan Minister of Refugees and Repatriation (MoRR).

Peter Nicolaus, UNHCR Representative in Afghanistan, listed the beneficiaries: "Households that are run by women with no adult male support, families with elderly or disabled members, families with many children. In other words, really poor or desperately disadvantaged families who are in dire need of our support."

Among them was Makai, a single mother of six who received blankets, clothes and other warm items, as well as two large sacks of coal and one large sack of flour. "These gifts mean everything to my young children and me," she told a UNHCR worker. "I am the only one old enough to bring in a bit of money, but my youngest was only born recently and I have not been able to find work because of her. Thank so very much for your support, we desperately need it."

In total, some 34,500 families numbering more than 200,000 people in Afghanistan will receive supplies such as blankets, plastic sheets, sweaters, shawls, gloves, socks, waterproof shoes, gas, charcoal and coal to help them stay warm and dry through the bitter winter.

As in previous years, the UN Refugee Agency's assistance focuses on isolated rural places of high return, hard-to-reach areas that may not be frequented by aid agencies. UNHCR has been urging donors, including those in the private sector, to direct their assistance to needy communities such as IDPs in Ghazni, or new refugee returnees arriving in Logar and Wardak.

Since the fall of the Taliban government in late 2001, UNHCR has helped some 4.6 million Afghan refugees to return home voluntarily. Nearly 3 million registered Afghan refugees are still living in exile in Pakistan and Iran today.

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Project Leader

Lauren Meling

Washington, District of Columbia United States

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