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

Refugees Turn Backs on Tent City

Disappointed returnees are making the long journey back to Pakistan or Iran after international aid doesn’t live up to expectations.
By IWPR Afghanistan

Like nearly two million other Afghans, Najibullah came home from a refugee camp in Pakistan last year, drawn by promises of new housing, plenty of food and the prospect of employment.


Instead, he has no work and his family are living in a tiny ramshackle shop with no doors or windows, on the fringe of a tent city of refugees in Kabul in the middle of a severe winter.


"Sometimes we don't have breakfast. At other times, if our children don't manage to collect enough wood and waste paper from the streets for our stove, we don't have lunch either," he told IWPR.


Earlier this month, an international study concluded that last year's United Nations-organised mass repatriation of over 1.8 million refugees who fled to Pakistan and Iran to escape war in their country was premature, driven by external political pressure rather than the best interests of the refugees, and had caused serious disruption to Afghanistan's reconstruction process.


The study by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, AREU, claimed that after being encouraged by international welfare organisations to return home by financial incentives, large amounts of reconstruction aid and a multinational military presence to ensure security in the country, many refugees were bitterly disappointed.


The testimony of some of those returnees appears to bear out this claim. Mohammad Fahim, who has been living in the half-destroyed Elm-e-Farhang building in Kabul for five months since returning from Pakistan, said, "These organisations promised the refugees that they would build their homes, give them food and prepare employment conditions for them in Afghanistan.


"This was the reason that many of us came back home. However, these promises have not been fulfilled. The only assistance that we were given was a mattress, a small table and a bag of coal for each family.


"In our building there are 80 families, many sharing a bathroom and toilet. This is unhygienic and totally against our religious principles."


Mohammad Ashraf also came home five months ago after a decade in Pakistan, during which time he qualified as an engineer. Shivering in a damp tent, he told IWPR, "I have applied for several jobs, but they say that the certificates that are given in Pakistan are not valid – and even claim they are fake.


"All the refugees in this area are living in tents. The children are all suffering various kinds of diseases such as pneumonia and influenza - and many of them are dying because of a lack of doctors and medicine."


According to Enayatullah Yousufzai of the International Organisation for Migration, some of the inhabitants living under canvas have no need to do so, claiming, "Many of the people living in these tents have their own houses, which they go back to at night. They spend their days in camp to receive aid from international organisations.”


Gul Mohammed Sarzada of the French charity ACTED (Aid Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development) told IWPR that their plan to build houses for the displaced people had been put on hold following delays in funding from the United Nations High Council for Refugees, UNHCR.


UNHCR spokesperson Maki Shinohara said they had no specific project for refugees returning to Kabul, preferring to concentrate on those coming back to villages outside the capital where conditions were much more severe. "However, if other organisations don't help refugees returning to Kabul, UNHCR will," Shinohara told IWPR.


Another ACTED official, Ihsanullah Zaheen, said that at the beginning of last year they had rehabilitated some 300 homes in Kabul damaged during the bitter fighting between rival Islamic groups following the withdrawal of Soviet troops, but had been forced to halt their work by the city government because other planned houses had been built without authorisation, and were due for eventual demolition.


For Mohammad Karim, a 65-year-old refugee recently returned home, the main problem lies with the international welfare organisation themselves - a commonly voiced complaint from impoverished Afghans as they watch well-paid aid officials flash by in expensive four-wheel drive vehicles.


"There are more than a thousand non-government organisations, NGOs, in Kabul, who get their funds from money promised by the international community for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Instead, they pay 5,000 US dollars a month in rent, buy new cars and pay huge salaries to their workers," said Karim.


For some of the refugees, the wait has been too long and the disappointment too great, and they have gone back to Pakistan.


"We had 120 families living here eight months ago, and 50 have given up and left the country," said Mohammad Anwar, who lives in a tent next to a police barracks. "The people you see here living in the rain and snow are those who are too poor to travel."


Mustafa is a journalism student at Kabul University.


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