HERAT, 18 September 2007 (IRIN) - Only 19 out of 1,700 returning families from Iran and Pakistan have settled on land in Herat Province, western Afghanistan, allocated to them over a year ago.
Taqi and Naqi settlements, 30km west of Herat city, were allocated to the families to ease the housing problems of returning refugees, but lack of basic services - drinking water, schools, hospitals, electricity and security - has discouraged settlement.
Most repatriated families who do not have their own homes in Afghanistan live in rented houses, with relatives or in city slums.
“We cannot build a house on a piece of land given to us in an arid desert,” said Mohammad Ashraf who lives with his family in a rented house in Herat city. Other returnees echoed this view, stressing there were no jobs in the designated sites.
Over four million Afghans have been repatriated from Iran and Pakistan in the last five years, according to an October 2006 survey conducted by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Only 41 percent of returning Afghans said they had a house in their home country.
Land distribution scheme
In order to tackle the problem, in 2005 the government announced a land distribution scheme whereby the most vulnerable returnees would receive a plot of land on which to build their own house. Plots were allocated to thousands of people across the country.
“We plan to allocate land to hundreds of families in 57 locations in 29 provinces until March 2008,” Shojauddin Shoja, an adviser at the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation Affairs (MRRA), told IRIN.
A large number of beneficiaries in different parts of the country, however, point to the lack of basic services and other facilities which have prevented them from settling in the allocated sites.
Returnees in Takhar Province, northeastern Afghanistan, for example, complained about a lack of livelihood opportunities at one such site about 25km from the provincial capital, Taloqan.
In northern Balkh Province people who were expected to settle in a site about 20km from the provincial capital said high transport costs and lack of a local market meant they could not live there.
“Certainly there can be a situation where people have a house or have a piece of land, but that piece of land is not sufficient to meet their needs… and that is a major issue in this country,” said Salvatore Lombardo, a UNHCR representative in Afghanistan.
More help needed
About one million Afghan returnees have received assistance to build houses through UNHCR’s shelter programme since 2002, the agency told IRIN. “It is still not enough,” conceded Lombardo.
The UNHCR is helping the Afghan authorities to implement five pilot projects in which returnee settlements will be established in five provinces where minimum services would also be provided.
Lombardo called on the Afghan government to ensure access to housing for vulnerable returnees through loans and other support programmes.
However, insecurity rather than housing is the main concern for about three million Afghan refugees still in Pakistan and Iran.
“Housing is not the decisive factor in motivating or discouraging the return of refugees… It is only one factor among several, including access to health, education and livelihoods,” Lombardo said.
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