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Briefing: The right way forward for Afghan refugees?

DUBAI, 3 May 2012 (IRIN) - As a meeting of representatives of the Afghan, Iranian and Pakistani governments and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) opened to discuss a new strategy for dealing with the most protracted refugee crisis in the world, NGOs working in Afghanistan raised a number of questions about the new approach.

The so-called Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees, to support Voluntary Repatriation, Sustainable Reintegration ad Assistance to Host Countries is an agreement between the three governments on a way forward for the 2.7 million Afghans registered as refugees in Iran and Pakistan; the estimated 2.4-3.4 million unregistered Afghans living in the two countries; and the nearly 6 million Afghans – one quarter of its population – who have returned from exile to very difficult circumstances. (See IRIN’s recent In-Depth look at the realities on the ground).

The two-day meeting in Geneva, which started on 2 May, invited international stakeholders – donors, diplomats, international organizations, aid agencies and others – to endorse the new approach, at a cost of nearly US$2 billion, which seeks to improve conditions in communities of origin in Afghanistan to encourage returns while supporting communities which host Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan, and providing Afghans in exile with skills training to help them upon their return to Afghanistan.

One key component of the plan’s implementation is to improve up to 48 areas of high return in Afghanistan by creating “model villages” through coordinated community-based development: building schools, clinics, water canals, providing access to land and shelter, and creating livelihood opportunities. The goal is to improve the quality of life of returnees to the levels enjoyed by their local counterparts and to create an environment in which refugees are more willing to return to their areas of origin.

But there are some concerns about how the strategy is to be implemented. Below are some of the key points up for discussion and clarification:

Is it the right time to encourage returns to Afghanistan?

Pakistan and Iran have hosted Afghan refugees for decades and have complained that they cannot continue to shoulder the burden of a massive refugee crisis indefinitely. But is now the right time to encourage refugees to return to Afghanistan?

“Deteriorating security conditions mean reintegration efforts over the past 10 years have failed to provide tangible dividends for returning refugees,” says a discussion paper drafted by NGOs in Afghanistan. “Repatriation may not be the panacea many initially hoped for.”

Ongoing insecurity has internally displaced nearly half a million Afghans. Some displaced people say they would not return to their areas of origin, even if security conditions improved, because of a lack of government services and employment opportunities. Many refugees who have returned have migrated to the cities, or returned to Pakistan or Iran when they could not find work. And in the midst of all this, international security forces are drawing down their troop presence in a transition period that could well trigger a return to all-out civil war.

The International Crisis Group says under such conditions, a big influx of returning refugees could be de-stabilizing.

The strategy itself says “conditions in Afghanistan are too severe to support continued large-scale repatriation” and yet it refers on several occasions to voluntary repatriation as the preferred solution.

“We are in an important period of transition in Afghanistan that is characterized by uncertainty,” Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, told the conference on 2 May. “Afghan refugees have shown that they vote with their feet when conditions for return are conducive … We have a collective responsibility to support and facilitate their legitimate aspirations.”

But UNHCR says the strategy is not aimed at trucking in masses of people. Its estimate for the number of returns in 2012 is about 120,000, up from last year’s 68,000, but far below the numbers during the first half of the last decade.

According to the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR), a coordination of national and international NGOs, most Afghan refugees are in a ‘wait and see’ mode during the transition period.

Is there enough baseline data?

The solutions strategy says the government of Iran and UNHCR will profile the refugee population in order to allow the establishment of model villages in Afghanistan to which they can return. But NGOs say this research should have been done before embarking on an “expensive hypothesis”.

They say more data and community consultation is needed to assess whether refugees really want to return; whether they want to go back to their areas of origin; and what they would need in order to fully re-integrate – such that solutions are crafted from the perspective of the user, not the designer, as Wael Ibrahim, head of ACBAR, put it.

Suzanne Murray Jones, senior UNHCR advisor working on the Solutions Strategy, acknowledges that “in an ideal world, this should have been done before, but we saw the political will of the three governments for discussing this now. It’s a matter of striking while the iron is hot. They were ready to engage, so we acted as a catalyst.” She said refugees are required by law to return to their areas of origin, which are all known in detailed refugee profiling done in both Pakistan and Iran.

“This is not the be-all and end-all. We are just saying a new paradigm is necessary. [Refugee re-integration] hasn’t been working for the last 10 years. We need to re-evaluate and improve the approach…If this works in the next 2-3 years, replicate it in other areas.”

But some aid workers say this is an example of policy-making in reverse order.

Most remaining refugees are urbanized and/or born in exile. Why is the strategy focused on areas of origin?

Some 125,000 Afghans are born in Pakistan and Iran every year. In Iran, 97 percent of Afghan refugees live in urban areas.

“The strategy is premised around the idea that Afghan refugees should return to place of origin,” said Dan Tyler, protection and advocacy adviser with the Norwegian Refugee Council in the Afghan capital, Kabul. “But all the evidence shows that when you try to return people who have been exiled for generations to their place of origin, it is very difficult to re-integrate.”

The profile of the Afghan refugee caseloads in Pakistan and Iran today is different than that of the many who returned between 2002 and 2005. Those who chose not to return then, even when Afghanistan was safer, may have less institutional, family and social ties to Afghanistan, and may not have land or housing. “ For many, returning to rural places of origin, whether or not there are livelihood opportunities, is not really relevant,” Tyler told IRIN. For some, “they’ve never lived in these areas.”

“We’re not talking about people who are going to return. We’re talking about people who have already returned,” said Murray Jones. “We are trying to assist those who have already returned, to assist villages whose coping mechanisms have already been stretched to the nth degree.”

Besides she told IRIN, the government does not allow UNHCR to assist displaced Afghans living in urban settlements, apart from temporary shelter and some household items, because “the government does not want them there.”

But Tyler says more effort should be invested in adequate urban planning.

“Urban migration is a major coping response for a population...It’s not something you try and prevent. It’s something you can try and respond to.”

Will return really be voluntary?

NGOs also fear the strategy could give the government of Iran and Pakistan “a green light to... aggressively pursue repatriation efforts,” the draft paper says.

The Pakistani government has noted that it will not extend residency cards for Afghan refugees, which expire at the end of 2012. Both Iran and Pakistan have previously deported undocumented Afghans.

“Is it a coincidence that this is happening right before the conference?” asked ACBAR’s Ibrahim. “Are they building the case that they can no longer afford them?”

But according to Murray Jones, Pakistan has said it was never going to extend the residency cards past 2012. She said she hoped the conference will help bolster the political support need to maintain asylum space there.

Is this strategy politicized?

"The ability for refugees to return in safety and dignity and become productive citizens in their communities upon return is also integral to the stability and progress of Afghanistan," Guterres said at the start of the conference, according to Reuters.

The joint strategy similarly notes that improving the quality of life of returnees is critical for the “stability and security” of Afghanistan – language that makes some people uncomfortable.

“The timing of the strategy plays into the transition rhetoric,” Tyler said.

International forces have argued during the transition process that the Afghan government is increasingly in a position to take care of itself. Pakistan and Iran can now argue that this should extend to refugees as well.

“The reason there’s been a lot of reaction on this are some of the wider political conditions around the timing of the strategy and the possible messages that it sends,” Tyler said.

Murray Jones says the goal is to work with both countries to preserve a space for refugees. “God forbid things explode in 2014/15, we don’t want those borders closed, which they could very well be.”

Why not put more effort into alternative solutions in Pakistan and Iran?

UNHCR admits the strategy doesn’t address in any detail alternative durable solutions, like legalized migration and naturalization. But UNHCR felt that “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” as Murray Jones put it.

“It’s certainly not a complete strategy. But it’s the best that we could get from the three governments that are actually sitting around the same table [for the first time]…This is a consensus. Whilst we would have liked to have [included economic migration], we would rather have this basis of consensus between three governments as a starting line and see if we can build on that moving forward.”

A 2010 Pakistani government strategy for dealing with Afghan refugees did refer to regularizing the legal stay of Afghans in Pakistan as one long-term solution. Pakistan has since backed off from that position, but observers say Iran and Pakistan both recognize they need laborers.

Is this the best way to spend a lot of money in such tight financial times?

The overall strategy – including projects in Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan – is expected to cost around $2 billion, with $863 million needed for the Afghan component.

The proposed strategy spends “disproportionately large amounts of resources through an alternative off-budget mechanism outside of the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund to a statistically small sample of the population,” the ACBAR paper said, making “the sustainability of any intervention questionable.”

But Murray Jones said the $863 million reflects the needs of 3.7 million returnees in 19 provinces, as calculated by the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations, in consultation with other ministries and UN agencies. It was simply a “number-crunching exercise just to have a handle on the enormity of it.” She said the majority of that money would be spent through development programmes, primarily the National Priority Programmes (NPPs).

UNHCR’s project, in conjunction with UNDP to improve 48 model villages, reaching some 600,000 people, will cost $180 million, she said, and come from UNHCR and UNDP funds already available.

“$180 million for 48 sites. That’s $3.75 million a site. One site on average is 12,000 people. That’s a lot of money for a humanitarian like me. But colleagues at UNDP say that’s peanuts for doing development work. We are trying to bridge the gap.” She said she hopes money spent in this coordinated approach will be more cost-effective.

An earlier proposal to create a new Multi-Donor Trust Fund was ditched when found to be unpopular, Murray Jones said.

Why not work through already existing government programmes?

Government programmes like the National Solidarity Programme (NSP), the Basic Package of Health Services (BPHS), and the NPPs, already provide a framework through which to develop the country, critics argue.

“Endorsing a new strategy ahead of the national strategy is counter-productive and dangerous: it risks creating severe inconsistencies,” the NGO paper said.

UNHCR Representative in Afghanistan, Peter Nicolaus, said in December that UNHCR’s approach to refugee re-integration was “the biggest mistake UNHCR ever made…We thought if we gave humanitarian assistance then macro-development would kick in."

UNHCR says it has realized that existing systems have not worked.

For Ibrahim, that’s all the reason to work harder to make it work, “rather than create an alternative system. It’s not sustainable and expensive.”

But UNHCR says it has identified 13 NPPs that are relevant to returnees and Vice-President Mohammad Qasim Fahim is working with ministries to prioritize returnees within those programmes.

Murray Jones says returnees still need special attention, in additional to national programmes that may include them.

“If you mainstream a group too much, they become invisible. Twenty-five percent of the country of Afghanistan is returnees. They shouldn’t be invisible.”

Observers say the pace of action in government is slow, and made worse by corruption and nepotism. So UNHCR and UNDP – in coordination with partners – will go ahead and build schools and clinics, in coordination with the relevant ministries, who will supply the necessary teachers and doctors.

Are returnees really the most vulnerable people in Afghanistan?

While refugees may return to Afghanistan with new skills learned abroad, they return to environments where those skills cannot be used, and a recent UNHCR survey found that 60 percent of returnees lived in worse conditions than their local counterparts.

But with internal displacement rising exponentially in 2011 and expected to worsen further in 2012, some wonder whether returnees should really be the central focus. While some are relieved at the search for longer-term solutions for returnees, other worry that continued humanitarian crises may be overlooked.

There are no statistics in Afghanistan assessing comparative vulnerability, and with many returnees becoming IDPs, it is hard to track anyway.

While UNHCR has been pushing the Solutions Strategy, it has also continued work on IDPs, with what it calls a landmark agreement by the government in March to draft an IDP policy.

But given one-quarter of the population has returned from exile, it is an important segment of the population to prioritize, Murray Jones maintained.

“These people should not be forgotten.”


Copyright © IRIN 2012
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
IRIN is a project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

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