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AFGHANISTAN: Interview with chief adviser on refugees and returnees

KABUL, 28 Dec 2004 (IRIN) - More than three million Afghan refugees have returned home from neighbouring Pakistan and Iran in the last two years. But millions remain in exile and are reluctant to return due to a lack of reintegration opportunities and shelter.

In an interview with IRIN, Habibullah Qadiri, the chief adviser to the Afghan government on refugees and returnees, said donor assistance was not enough to help the returnees reintegrate, while a lack of shelter and land remained problematic.

QUESTION: What is the status of the Afghan return and how important is a successful return?

ANSWER: Almost three million people have returned to Afghanistan from Iran, Pakistan and neighbouring countries. The returnees always bring skills with them from the countries they lived in and that has contributed to the economic development and reconstruction of the country.

We can see many examples like we had in the past, carpentry by hand which has now been mechanised by the skills the returnees brought.

In most fields, the returnees have brought up-to-date arts and trades. In some cases these people bring money to Afghanistan for investment. Also, Afghans who were getting remittances from their families oversees used to spend money in exile but now they spend it in Afghanistan.

I think time plays a very important role in the return process. All the problems cannot be solved in two years so my insistence would alsways be that we should go slow and should not encourage people to return in large numbers as the government will not be able to help them. I hope this year we will have more rainfall that will help a lot and will create the desire to return.

Q: What are the challenges in terms of helping Afghans to return home?

A: There are many challenges for the government. One is the land problem. More and more returnees are coming and concentrating in towns because of the availability of jobs, and this is creating problems. We should have housing schemes in different parts of the country. Also, some families who are still abroad do not have land - they have lost it or they were nomads. Now they have no land to return to and we must solve this problem with the government.

Also, in many parts of Afghanistan we don't have health facilities, we don't have education facilities. Even in certain parts of Kabul students are still in tents, not proper classrooms.

There are many problems, such as human rights and gender issues, which need to be prioritised as it is the duty of the government to protect these returnees.

Q: Many returnees are complaining that there is very little happening in terms of reintegration assistance. Why do think that is a problem?

A: We still need coordination to address the [needs of] returnees through development programmes.

We have many organisations assisting the returnees, including the Ministry of Refugees with its more than 1,000 staff around the country.

In my opinion not much has been done for the returnees by the donor countries. We appeal for more assistance and more money for the return programme because we should think about the sustainability of return and the reintegration which is the right of every returnee. We should not just be dumping people. We still have more than three million Afghans in neighbouring countries.

The other problem is the lack of a proper database. We should keep track of the returnees. We must have some data to do returnee-monitoring; for example, what they need in their places of return, whether people have left an area of return and so on.

Q: Some returnees are complaining that they have been forcibly pushed out by their host countries, mainly from Iran. What is the government's stand in this regard?

A: The policy of the government of Afghanistan is that the return should always be voluntarily and in a controlled manner so that it can be absorbed in society. But what happens in the case of Iran is that - even though we have a tripartite agreement with Iran which will be ending in March 2005, and the agreement says the return should be voluntary - in reality many Afghans from Iran are being pushed.

In Iran circumstances are in such a way that there is no option but to return. They are being arrested in certain cases and they are told that there will be no support for them. The returns from Iran in 2002 in many cases have not been voluntary.

Q: Afghanistan still continues to deal with the problem of internally displaced persons (IDPs). Why do these families not go back to their places of origin?

A: We still have more than 160,000 IDPs in the country. Some of these IDPs are people affected by the drought. There are also nomads who have lost their livestock. While the drought is still continuing in their areas, restocking these people is a big problem due to persistent drought and poverty.

We also have security IDPs, mainly the Pashtuns from the north. They cannot return because of security, ethnic discrimination and political problems.

We have established a return commission in the north. Leading commanders of the north are in this commission. Armed men loyal to these commanders often create problems for the returnees but they have promised to help us tackle this problem. But it will still take some time to take these IDPs to their places of origin.

It is not only security in the north. There is also very little happening in terms of reintegration. Drought is also very serious there which challenges the volunteer reintegration.

Q: What is your opinion of the process of aid delivery for the return and reintegration of the refugees?

A: There is a lot happening in terms of reintegration but not in a coordinated way.

I think we have to include the reintegration of returnees in the national development plan and that should also be addressed by other ministries, mainly the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development. But still we must first create coordination between the UN agencies, NGOs and the government ministries in order to have a successful reintegration programme.

Q: Have you noticed if any returnees have gone back to neighbouring countries?

A: Not many. We have heard that some people did return to Pakistan. That is again because of continuing drought, and as the country is based on agriculture it is very difficult to survive without irrigation systems and enough water for agriculture.

Q: How do you address the return of Afghans from oversees?

A: We have certain programmes like "volunteer Afghans return" and "qualified Afghan return" that assist the Afghans in exile to come to their country and play a role in the reconstruction process. We also have the "explore and prepare" programme by the UK government.

We have many Afghans that have returned and now they are running good businesses. For example, an Afghan carpenter returned from the Netherlands and with some assistance from the IOM [International Organization for Migration] he has managed a very successful business with much profit.

There is also skills training for those oversees returnees including on the job training programmes.

Q: When do you think Afghanistan will have overcome the return and reintegration of refugees?

A: As large numbers of Afghans are still out of the country it is too early to give a timetable. There are two reasons for this: one is that the number is very high, the other is we don't know about the condition of Afghanistan. We don't know how quickly we can provide jobs to these people or whether the private sector can generate industries for more jobs.

The remaining case load in Iran and Pakistan are the people who need land to come and stay in this country. So again, the distribution of land will be an important factor.

Q: How is donor assistance to the process of refugees' return and reintegration?

A: In 2003 I think about US $200 million was allocated to the return process in Afghanistan, while in 2004 they had about $100 million dollars. Let's see in 2005; it may be less than that.

The donors are taking less interest in humanitarian assistance and focusing more on the development of the country. This is good but the country still needs humanitarian assistance as the return is continuing.

Q: What is your message to Afghan refugees still in exile?

A: I want to advise our Afghans in exile that they should take an informed decision to come to the country. They should get to know the facilities and the challenges and then should decide. It mostly depends on them, not the UN or the government. They need to create a sustainable livelihood for themselves.

I am suggesting that life is not very easy. They should return more informed and prepared for the challenges on the ground.

The above article comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2004

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