In February, tens of thousands of unregistered Afghan refugees forcibly went back to fragile areas in Afghanistan. To address their needs and those of other displaced families, Cordaid expands its response in Nangarhar and Urozgan provinces. At the same time, we urge governments not to forcibly return Afghan citizens.
Since 2015 more than 2 million Afghans had to return, mostly from Pakistan and Iran, because of changing policies in the host countries. As recent research shows, many of them are undocumented refugees. They return to places with limited absorption capacity. Especially in volatile areas of ongoing conflict they risk being displaced once again, resulting in even more fragility.
For the most recent figures of returnees and IDPs, read UNOCHA’s Afghanistan Weekly Field Report.
Conflict is ongoing, absorption capacities are lacking
Abdur Rauf is Cordaid’s humanitarian program coordinator based in Kabul. “Even now, during winter break, we see dozens of undocumented refugee families a day crossing the Pakistan border”, he says. “With political tensions rising and winter ending in March, we expect numbers of returnees to increase drastically. Which will be a disaster. Government capacities to absorb the influx are lacking. The conflict between state and non-state actors is ongoing. And international funding does not allow us even closely to meet the demands of 2 million returnees and nearly 2 million internally displaced persons.”
We now also provide 6 to 9 months vocational skills training sessions and tool kits, to returnees and IDPs in Nangarhar.
Abdur Rauf, Humanitarian program manager
Meanwhile, we do whatever we can. In the past 2 years, Cordaid, as member and lead agency of the Dutch Relief Alliance Joint Response in Afghanistan, responded to the plight of thousands of returning and displaced families in Nangarhar province, bordering Pakistan. “Families were free to spend our multi-purpose cash assistance on needs they considered most urgent. Most households used it to pay the rent, buy food, cover medical expenses or pay back loans. We will continue this support the coming year”, Rauf explains.
Aid to female headed households prioritized
But the biggest challenge lies in providing longer term perspective. To – even slightly – slow down the mutual reinforcement of conflict, poverty and displacement. Many returnees had to leave without any preparation or luggage – after decades in Pakistan – and now find themselves displaced and destitute again. Many families were uprooted by violence overnight inside Afghanistan, often for the umpteenth time. They need more than aid upon arrival.
In our training sessions, our female staff empower widows and young single mothers and main bread winners to speak out and go to local authorities to claim what they are entitled to.
Jawad Ammanullah, Deputy Director of RRAA
Among them, female headed households are Cordaid’s priority. Rauf: “This is why we set up a shelter project for 350 women in Nangarhar province. They are single mothers who lost their husband, or widows or women whose husband is unable to work. Main breadwinners, all of them.”
For 100 women who went back to their region of origin and who have their own land, Cordaid helped to construct safe two-room houses. These houses offer more protection, for the women and their children. Women no longer need to pay rent and can even let a room and earn an extra income. “And we make sure that the women become the legal owner of the house”, says Rauf.
For 250 displaced female headed households who have no access to land yet, Cordaid provided materials to construct transitional shelters.
Focus on women’s security
In the shelter project for female headed-households, Cordaid combines emergency assistance and longer-term development, with a particular focus on women’s security. Bas Beek, Cordaid Security and Justice program manager: “By incorporating the Provincial Women’s Network in Nangarhar, we gained unprecedented access to vulnerable women in a transparent manner which would have been very difficult otherwise. This provided much-needed legitimacy in a sensitive process of deciding who would benefit from the project. The members of the network have been trained to engage with women in the communities to listen to how they perceive their security concerns themselves. This provided valuable insights to align project interventions with actual felt needs of the women, as well as in monitoring the results of these interventions.”
Legal right training sessions for women. Nangarhar province (© RRAA)
Jawad Ammanullah, deputy director of RRAA, one of Cordaid’s implementing partners in shelter project, closely collaborates with the Provincial Women’s Network in Nangarhar. He echoes this strong need to integrate women’s security into relief activities. “It’s essential that women know their rights, their human rights, their rights as IDPs, their children’s right to education, their rights to healthcare”, he says. “A house to them means increased security, protection from the cold and winter related diseases. But that is not enough. In our training sessions, our female staff empower widows and young single mothers – main bread winners – to speak out. To go to local authorities and claim what they are entitled to. Experienced female staff members go from village to village to meet displaced women, listen to their needs and promote their rights and tackle their problems. Those whose shelter needs are most acute, receive the money to buy building materials. And we train them and their relatives in permanent or transitional shelter construction. This way they can build their shelter or have it built for them, according to needs, wishes and culture. It’s better and more cost-effective than working with local contractors.”
Urozgan, an isolated province only accessible by air, is even more underserved by the international community than the rest of Afghanistan.
Making people less aid dependant through job creation
To further increase re-integration and decrease aid dependency, Cordaid has included job creation in its new Joint Response program that started in January. “We continue our multi-purpose cash and shelter programs for newly displaced families in Nangarhar ”, says Rauf. “But on top of that we now also provide 6 to 9 months vocational skills training sessions based on market demand and tool kits, to both returnees and IDPs in Nangarhar. This will allow 200 displaced farmers with access to farming land, to use small farm start-up kits and seeds we provide. We will assist 300 others in setting up micro-enterprises, for example as carpenters or tailors, and 36 female headed households in starting their own poultry farms.”
Expanding the IDP repsonse to Urozgan
Meanwhile, as the crisis is deepening, Cordaid has expanded its IDP response in Urozgan, another province with urgent needs. Because of its geographic strategic importance to both government and opposition forces, fighting has been on-going in Urozgan since 2016. This has caused massive displacement. 30 to 40.000 IDPs are currently living in Tarinkot, the still relatively safe district capital. The influx puts an enormous strain on host communities – the city of Tarinkot having a host population of not more than 100.000 inhabitants.
No one should be sent back to a place where she or he faces a threat to life.
Paul van den Berg, Political advisor
Last year, Cordaid jumped in with its own funds. We provided lifesaving multi-purpose cash assistance in the central province to 3500 displaced people. Rauf Abdur: “UNOCHA funds now allow us to expand our efforts. Which is a blessing, as Urozgan is an isolated province only accessible by air. It’s even more underserved by the international community than the rest of Afghanistan. With its health program, Cordaid has a firm presence here. We’re a trusted partner there, which makes it easier to expand our humanitarian assistance.”
In Urozgan, Cordaid will provide :
- three months’ cash for rent to 1.400 people;
- cash for shelter repair to 2.100 people;
- cash to buy essential non-food household items to 4.900 persons.
80% of this support goes to displaced households, 20% to host community members. “Given the scale of the problem it’s not enough, but it’s a start”, says Abdur Rauf.
Combining humanitarian and development assistance
Jawad Ammanullah, remembers how Cordaid and RRAA joined hands for the first time back in 2001, to serve displaced communities in Mazar-i-Sharif. “The most important thing is that you assist people to go home again. That is their greatest desire. If that is impossible, we need to help them create a new home and start living again. You can only do that by combining acute humanitarian assistance with longer term development. It took us 12 years to develop independent cooperatives of farmers, carpet weavers and other uprooted but talented people. Today, these cooperatives are still operational, despite the war. We created new irrigation networks, developed new value chains and created market access in an insecure context. We moved mountains and faced adversities. This payed off. Many of the persons we started supporting in 2001, are still active in their cooperative and still have their business today. They support their family.”
Forced returns to Afghanistan aggravate the crisis
Wherever we can in Afghanistan, we provide humanitarian assistance, as well as longer term development assistance. Where possible we combine them. But as long as the Afghan government does not have the capacity to absorb and re-integrate displaced populations, as long as causes of conflict are not sustainably addressed, and as long as foreign governments are forcibly returning Afghan citizens, whether in Europe or in neighbouring countries, fragility will only increase and millions of under- and unserved Afghans will remain at their wits end trying to carve out a future.
This is why Cordaid expressly urges the Dutch and other governments to acknowledge the highly unpredictable nature of the ongoing conflict. And to respect the international principle of non-refoulement. “No one should be sent back to a place where she or he faces a threat to life”, says Cordaid political advisor Paul van den Berg. “In no part of the country, Afghan citizens are protected against persecution and human rights violations. As long as this is the case people cannot return in safety and dignity”, he continues.
“Sending people back to today’s Afghanistan, not only puts individual lives and families in danger. It further undermines the road to stability and peace and adds to the colossal challenges of Afghanistan. And it puts immense weight on an aid community that is already overstretched and overburdened”, van den Berg concludes.
(Featured image: Informal IDP settlement near Jalalabad. These children live with their mother in a tent next to a busy road to Pakistan. Their house was burnt down by armed opposition groups. © Cordaid/Frank van Lierde)