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Opinion: Survey of the Afghan Returnees

July 31, 2019

By Tabasum Akseer

At a June 23 press conference, the Afghan minister of refugees and repatriation announced that more than 3.2 million Afghans, most exiled by war and the quest for a better life, had returned to Afghanistan between 2012 and 2018. This number continues to grow: in the first six months of 2019, some 215,400 Afghans returned from Iran and Pakistan alone. Estimates indicate that as many as 3.6 million Afghan refugees remain in these two neighboring countries, and their repatriation will have repercussions well into the foreseeable future. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), “…given the already high levels of internal displacement in many areas of Afghanistan, the absorption capacities of many provinces are already overstretched. The potential mass return of Afghans in the second half of 2019, due to deteriorating protection space in other host countries, is a major concern for us at IOM.”

Asia Foundation’s Survey of the Afghan Returnees arrives at a crucial time in this unfolding migration. It provides detailed empirical information, unavailable elsewhere, to guide the government of Afghanistan, the international community, and national and international NGOs as they work to respond with policies and services for returnees and host communities. In this first year of the Survey, 7,989 interviews were conducted, from October 25 to November 7, 2018, among Afghans 18 and older in heavily populated returnee clusters in Balkh, Herat, Kabul, Kandahar, and Nangarhar provinces. The 288 enumerators,130 female and 158 male, were gender-matched with respondents.

The growing influx of returnees poses a challenge to the Afghan government, host communities, and infrastructure resources. Returnees face issues with reintegration, employment, housing, education, and basic human needs. Although host communities report themselves comfortable with returnees, the Survey also reflects their economic concerns amid rising unemployment and slow economic growth. Returnees who may have new skills, training, and education from elsewhere pose an added burden to an already fragile job market. More than one-third of respondents (36.0%) reported that returnees had negatively affected job opportunities.

The principal reasons returnees cited for their return include unemployment and poor economic conditions in their former host countries (48.6%), deportation or forcible removal (37.1%), and the desire for family reunification (24.4%). Services and assistance for returnees remain uncertain, and basic human and household needs are often unmet. Some 41.4% cited food as their most pressing concern, followed by cash/loans (32.5%), health-care services (22.0%), housing (21.3%), and clothing and kitchen materials (17.1%).

Just one-third of returnees (34.3%) said they had formally registered upon their return, making it more difficult for agencies and organizations to meet their needs (and betraying some skepticism about the likely benefits). Of those who did, most registered with the government (42.1%), followed by the IOM (31.4%), UNHCR (30.8%), and the World Bank (2.7%). By province, over half of returnees in Nangarhar and Kandahar were registered (59.6% and 53.7%, respectively), compared to less than a quarter in Kabul (23.9%), Herat (20.2%), and Balkh (14.1%). Returnee registration rates also vary by point of departure. Of those who returned from Pakistan, 43.6% reported registering with an organization, compared to just 22.7% from Iran.

More than a third of returnees (36.1%) have had some formal education, with those of age 18–35 more likely than those 35–50 or 51 and over (44.9%, 34.4%, and 29.1%, respectively). Some 36.6% reported that a child was not going to school because they needed to work to support the family, and nearly one-quarter (22.0%) said that tuition or school supplies were too expensive, further evidence that returnees’ basic human and household needs are often unmet.

A significant proportion of returnees are children, many of them born abroad and now seeing Afghanistan for the first time, making education and reintegration critical. As noted by other sources, these children face a precarious situation—an environment without full access to the basic rights of education, protection, and health care outlined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Rates of child labor among returnee children are high: 32% according to some reports. A qualitative study by Save the Children notes that benefits for returnees, such as in-kind support, are provided to households and do not necessarily benefit children directly.

When returnees were asked about challenges they and their families had faced, around one-quarter identified migrant camps or shelters and the neighborhoods around them as the most difficult environments. Their homes, workplaces, and local marketplaces also presented challenges. Given the strain that returnees can place on host communities, there would appear to be significant potential for conflicts or disputes, yet these were reported by just 12.7% of respondents. Surprisingly, reported disputes did not stem from conflicts over limited social services, but instead related to intimidation (21.8%), harassment (19.4%), vandalism (18.9%), immorality (18.2%), and discrimination (11.1%).

When host communities were surveyed, the vast majority of respondents (96.4%) said they feel comfortable with returnees. As would be expected, respondents who were related to a returnee were more likely to say they feel very comfortable interacting with returnees than those who were not related to a returnee (70.3% vs. 58.0%).

These high levels of acceptance exist despite the mixed economic impact of returnee populations. About one-third of respondents (36.0%) reported that returnees had a negative effect on job opportunities; 36.2% reported a positive effect; 17.0% reported no effect; and 10.0% said it depends on who the returnee is and where they are coming from.

With limited access to official resources and services, and a registration system that is effectively ad hoc, returnees must often appeal to their neighbors for help. Nearly one-quarter of host community respondents (24.3%) reported that they or their families had been approached by a returnee for assistance. The most common requests were for food (22.6%), financial aid (19.6%), home appliances (9.9%), houses/land (8.9%), loans (2.2%), clothes (3.3%), and employment (2.9%).

A majority of host community respondents felt the government should address the needs of returnees. Some 71.4% supported government food aid to returnees. Over half supported government financial aid (65.5%), skills or job training (64.2%), housing support (64.5%), and help getting land (60.7%) and livestock (56.6%). More than half of host community respondents (63.8%) said that returnees need more help than they are already getting, while just 19.5% said they need less. Comparing provinces, some 85.2% of respondents in Kabul said that returnees need more help, followed by 69.2% in Nangarhar, 65.1% in Herat, 60.2% in Balkh, and 39.1% in Kandahar.

As the Survey makes clear, two-thirds of returnees remain outside the formal registration process, making them even less likely to receive the services and support that they need. Returnee registration should be encouraged wherever possible, and awareness-raising campaigns at border areas could be an effective strategy. However, serious thought must also be given to the nation’s capacity, infrastructure, and logistical resources, as current systems of support, already strained, could easily break under a new surge of returnees—in the event of a peace deal, for example—raising the specter of a humanitarian disaster.

Millions of Afghan migrants who left their poor and embattled homeland in search of a better life for themselves and their families are now returning, often involuntarily, to face an uncertain future in a country where they have few resources. While their fellow Afghans have largely welcomed them, their future well-being, and that of Afghanistan as a whole, depends on their country’s ability to restore them to a place in Afghan society.

Tabasum Akseer is director of policy and research for The Asia Foundation in Afghanistan. She can be reached at tabasum.akseer@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Afghanistan
Related programs: Conflict and Fragile Conditions

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