Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Repatriation to Afghanistan: Durable Solution or Responsibility Shifting?

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Repatriation to Afghanistan: Durable Solution or Responsibility Shifting?

Article excerpt

Despite the return of almost five million Afghan refugees to Afghanistan since 2002, about three million still remain abroad. What are their prospects of return? More to the point, what is the prospect of those who have returned remaining in Afghanistan?

UNHCR considers repatriation to Afghanistan as a sustainable partsolution to a protracted refugee situation.1 1 doubt many Afghans would agree. Evidence suggests the opposite, with incidences of 'recycling', subsequent internal displacement and large numbers of refugees who remain outside Afghanistan. Rather than a success story, the Afghan case painfully demonstrates the problems with resolving protracted displacement where considerations other than refugee protection are at the heart of the activities of international actors and where the human security of refugees is in competition with national, regional and international security agendas. Even UNHCR now concedes that "the Afghanistan experience has highlighted the complexity of the repatriation and reintegration process, which has proven to be a much more sustained and complex challenge than initially anticipated."2

The rapid repatriation of Afghans that began in 2002 was the largest UNHCR-assisted programme in almost 30 years, involving about five million refugees. But these refugees returned to a politically unstable environment and the motives behind the push for repatriation were not necessarily in the best interests of the refugees or Afghanistan. In the post 9/11 world, Afghan repatriation was needed to legitimise the US-led intervention, subsequent peace process and the fledgling government.3 These three factors seemed to outweigh more careful considerations of the feasibility of return and the impact that such large numbers of returnees would have on a poor and war-stricken country which was already struggling to accommodate those who had remained. The interests of host countries (wanting to rid themselves of a long-term burden, or regain land for urban expansion as in the case of Pakistan) also overruled the best interests of the refugees and Afghanistan, and possibly even of long-term regional stability. In the search for quick success, the durability of the repatriation solution was not adequately considered.

The return of such large numbers of refugees since 2002 has almost certainly exacerbated existing problems (if not contributed to new ones) by placing huge pressure on Afghanistan's absorption capacity. In Afghanistan today:

* corruption is widespread and there is a lack of rule of law; services such as health care and education are inadequate, especially outside urban areas.

* security has deteriorated over the past two years and humanitarian space is continuously shrinking

* shelter is scarce, with, for example, 80% of the population of Kabul (including many returning refugees and IDPs) living in squatter settlements

* disputes over land ownership and tenure are major sources of conflict and many returnees have found their land occupied; lacking documentation to prove their ownership, these returnees in turn occupy the land of others.

* secondary displacement (returnees becoming IDPs) is common, due to insecurity, lack of rural livelihoods and land/property disputes

* the majority of returnees - as indeed, many of those who remained - struggle for survival, are un- or under-employed, and five at or below the poverty level.

In response, 'voluntary' repatriation has come to a halt and those who remain abroad are likely to return only if forced. The great majority of those families remaining in Pakistan and in Iran have been in exile for more than 20 years; 50% of the registered Afghan population in these two countries were born in exile. Remaining refugees may try to 'disappear' within the urban areas of their host countries - many Afghans in Pakistan already hold Pakistani identification cards - or join the masses of (illegal) labour migrants. …

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