Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Refugee Repatriation was “Premature”

Displaced people encouraged to return to Afghanistan may have been better off where they were, new report claims.
By IWPR Afghanistan

The United Nations-organised mass repatriation of nearly two million Afghan refugees last year was premature and has caused serious disruption to the country’s reconstruction process, an international study has concluded.


The study, Taking Refugees for a Ride?, by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, AREU, said the programme was driven by internal and external political pressures rather than the best interests of the displaced persons themselves.


Around 1.7 million refugees - four times the planned total - came home from Pakistan and Iran in 2002. But the United Nations High Council for Refugess, UNHCR, has defended the repatriation programme.


“We did anticipate and plan for a sizeable repatriation in 2002 but certainly not on the scale that occurred. UNHCR, the donors, and the Afghan authorities had to respond very quickly to movements over which they exercised little influence,” said a spokesman.


But the AREU report claims that, having been encouraged by financial incentives, the promises of huge reconstruction aid and a multinational military presence to ensure security in the country, many refugees have been disappointed.


The aid has been slow in coming, and the military presence is limited to the capital Kabul, leaving large areas in the hands of powerful warlords and bandits.


“It is safe to say that many returnees found themselves in a worse position after their return than before, and that the scale and speed of the return helped to divert yet more of the limited funds available for reconstruction into emergency assistance,” the study by British academics David Turton and Peter Marsden said.


The study called among other things for increased international aid for reconstruction; more donor support for countries hosting refugees to enable them to stay where they are until the situation at home improves; and expanding the role of the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, to all of Afghanistan’s 32 provinces.


The AREU is an independent research institution aimed at helping international humanitarian and development programmes to operate more effectively in Afghanistan. Its management board includes representatives from donors, UN agencies and NGOs, and the refugees study was funded by the European Commission.


People began leaving Afghanistan in large numbers following the Soviet invasion in 1979, and by the end of the Eighties there were an estimated three million displaced people in Iran and around the same number in Pakistan.


Following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, Afghanistan slipped off the agenda of western concerns, donors began to lose interest in supporting refugees and the host countries began to harden their attitude towards their continued presence on their territory.


The September 11, 2001 attacks on America brought Afghanistan right back to the top of the agenda, and with the fall of the hard line Taleban regime soon afterwards a spontaneous return movement began among refugees.


In March 2002, UNHCR began an assisted repatriation programme, with a planned target of 400,000 from each country. By the end of September, more than 1.5 million had returned from Pakistan and over 220,000 from Iran.


“UNHCR’s initial plans for reintegration assistance had to be scaled down drastically because the returnees so greatly exceeded the number budgeted,” the study said. “Meanwhile reconstruction assistance was taking much longer than expected to materialise, and calls for the extension of ISAF beyond Kabul continued to fall on deaf ears.”


The study said around a million more people were internally displaced in the country, partly by the effects of a drought now in its fourth year, and partly because of ethnic unrest in the north of the country, the study said.


“UNHCR now found itself in a familiar situation – ‘alone on the dance floor’, vainly encouraging its development partners to get to their feet,” the report said.


“Meanwhile, the donors were complaining the UNHCR was overreaching itself by getting involved in ‘development’ rather than ‘relief’; the Afghan government was complaining that precious development funds were being used merely to keep its citizens alive; and many returnees were complaining that they had been encouraged by promises of assistance to return to a situation in which they were worse off than in the country of asylum.”


The UNHCR spokesperson told IWPR that it did not consider that the large repatriation movement had deflected the international community’s attention or funding away from the reconstruction agenda or programmes.


“Afghanistan’s humanitarian needs continue to be extensive and assistance for them is still very much required. Moreover, donor funds for humanitarian and reconstruction programmes are generally drawn from different budget lines,” he said.


The study found that political pressure from inside and outside was a major factor driving the repatriation programme. For the new Afghan government, it was a vote of confidence as it struggled to exert control over warlords. For the US and its allies, it could be seen as retrospective justification for the overthrow of the Taleban.


“For the governments of Pakistan and Iran, it represented a reduction in what they saw as an unfair economic burden of hosting Afghan refugees. For UNHCR, it emphatically demonstrated its ‘relevance’ to the international community,” the report said.


It suggested that a delay in the mass return of refugees might have been beneficial for many of them, but added, “Even if such a policy had been judged desirable it might nevertheless have been ruled out because of political constraints on UNHCR’s freedom of action – coming from its funders, from the government of Afghanistan and from countries of asylum.


“Our principal conclusion is that it was these external factors that led UNHCR to launch an assisted repatriation programme in early 2002, which was, arguably, in the interests neither of the majority of its intended beneficiaries nor of the long-term reconstruction of Afghanistan.”


The study said the refugee crisis had been overlaid on a history of economic migration from Afghanistan, “We must therefore assume that a significant number of Afghans will seek to remain in both countries.”


It called for donor governments to increase their support directly to UNHCR and indirectly by giving significant “burden-sharing” aid to both host countries.


UNHCR described the report as covering “a very complex subject in a creditable way considering the short time available”, defended its repatriation programme as a positive step. “It is clear that the return and reintegration of so many people into their homeland does represent a sharp social and economic challenge, and that this will certainly be assisted by an increase in future support for rehabilitation and reconstruction programmes in Afghanistan,” said the spokeman.


“UNHCR believes that the repatriation movements in 2002 and those in future will also be a source of encouragement for international support to Afghanistan and continue to draw a positive and sustained response.”


But AREU’s director Andrew Wilder said that lessons had to learned from the 2002 returnees “to avoid unnecessarily creating another humanitarian crisis.


“Furthermore, we risk contributing to political destabilisation in Afghanistan by increasing the number of landless and unemployed Afghans fighting over scarce resources.”


Refugees in Kabul confirmed that many were living under harsh conditions, under canvas in severe winter conditions.


Mohammad Ashraf, a 35-year-old engineer who spent a decade in Pakistan, is now living in a tented camp in Tahya Maskan area in the north of the capital. “All the families here are living in tents, which are permanently damp. The lack of water and electricity, and the absence of schools in our area, have prompted some refugees to go back to Pakistan,” he said.


“The children are suffering from various diseases including pneumonia and bronchitis. Due to a lack of doctors and medicine, many children are dying in their tents.”


Colin McIntyre is a trainer with IWPR in Kabul. Mustafa, a journalism student at Kabul University, contributed to this report.