The Canadian Press, October 18, 2007
Bleak prospects face millions of refugees on return to Afghanistan
"This is the age for my son to get an education but he collects old plastic bags and old articles"
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - Abdul Qahir thought it was time to go home.
After the Taliban toppled from power, Qahir packed up his family and all they could take with them and crossed the border back into his Afghan homeland. Qahir, 57, had spent 19 years in Pakistan, most of them in a sprawling refugee camp.
He said he was very optimistic as he passed through the mountains and saw his native country stretched out before him.
A newly established refugee camp 60 km away from Kabul city where hundreds of families live in hell like conditions. These are Afghans expelled from Pakistan and Iran 6 months ago and still have no access to clean water and live on only bread. As the winter approaches, fear of a human catastrophe comes in at the door of every one of these poor residents. (RAWA photo, Sep. 24, 2007)
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But six years later, he says he is "hopeless and disappointed."
Qahir's first home back in Afghanistan was another refugee camp in the Zhari district of Kandahar province. Even the help of international aid organizations was not enough for him, his wife and four children.
"Sometimes we used to sleep hungry," he says.
Qahir moved his family into Kandahar city but working as a labourer, the only job he could find, he's unable to pay the rent.
He needs help, he says. "Otherwise we will have to go back and get refuge in Pakistan."
Millions of Afghans fled their homeland after the 1979 Soviet invasion. Many more left after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, when Afghanistan fell into civil war and then under the influence of the Taliban.
Since the collapse of the Taliban in December 2001, the UN High Commission for Refugees estimates that more than three million Afghans have returned from Pakistan. More than 324,000 have crossed the border this year alone.
The agency estimates that about two million continue to live at 85 refugee camps throughout Pakistan.
Now Pakistani officials, citing concerns that Taliban insurgents use the border camps as a base to attack NATO and Afghan forces inside Afghanistan, have ordered four large camps along the border to close.
Yet Afghanistan doesn't seem to want the refugees either.
Sayed Amir, 41, works for the UN refugee agency that runs the camp in the Zhari district of Kandahar province.
He says there is fear in government that insurgents will take advantage of the return, moving as refugees into the very heart of the Taliban movement to reinforce the insurgency while living off international aid.
"The Afghan government was scared of that, because Afghan government thought if they get refuge once in Zhari, it can create a lot of problems for the nation," he says.
"That is one of the reasons that most of the refugees were sent back to Pakistan."
The vast majority of Afghan refugees living in Pakistan's camps say Afghanistan is not secure and that they will have no homes and no work if they return.
They are not wrong, says Sahibo.
She and her husband, M. Akbar, rely on non-governmental organizations for all their daily needs in a refugee camp in Kandahar.
"Sometimes I must beg, sometimes I ask neighbours for leftovers to fill my young son's stomach," she says.
"In the camp, all the times our eyes are in search of something."
A lack of jobs, safe drinking water, accessible health care, education and housing are what awaits returning Afghan refugees, according to a recent report by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
Interviews with thousands of refugees and people displaced internally by fighting found chronic food shortages. More than half said they did not have access to safe drinking water.
Just four per cent of those interviewed cited security as a major issue. Only 38 per cent had a stable income, and 60 per cent were living below the poverty line of US$1 a day.
A third of those interviewed said their children were not attending school, and more than one third had at least one child working.
Sahibo's husband, Akbar, says the family should never have come back from Pakistan.
"I thought that when we move towards our country everything will be all right," he says.
"How long will we be living like this?"
A deported man showed his stained shirt and said, "they [Iranian security forces] kept on punching and kicking me in the face and head while I was bleeding".
IRIN News, April 30, 2007
He says he was so destitute he had to marry off his daughters. Now his nine-year-old son's future weighs heavily on his mind.
"This is the age for my son to get an education but he collects old plastic bags and old articles," Akbar says, weeping.
The UN refugee agency and other aid agencies have warned of a looming humanitarian crisis.
In April, tens of thousands of Afghan refugees were forcibly deported from Iran. Many of them are now living in refugee camps in Afghanistan.
Humanitarian agencies say they are already overwhelmed with Afghans fleeing fighting internally and refugees who have returned. There are simply not enough resources for more returnees.
"We are worried that if there is a sudden return of Afghans from the camp this may turn into a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan," Salvatore Lombardo, a UNHCR representative in Kabul, said in a recent interview.
The Canadian Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar is co-ordinating with UN agencies to prepare for winter, when snow and rain will cut off access to many parts of rural Kandahar.
The team is not directly involved with refugee camps but the UN agencies who are have a contingency plan to ensure they have enough supplies such as food, blankets and tents, said Capt. Joanne Blais, spokeswoman for the PRT.
"We, the PRT and the UN, are trying to help the responsible department within government to make sure they have the necessary capacity to respond," Blais says.
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