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Forced returnees in Afghanistan face an uncertain future

Story Humanitarian assistance
Afghanistan -

As temperatures are dropping, Cordaid is providing winterisation and other support to thousands of forced returnees in Nangarhar province. They are part of over 1,5 million Afghan refugees who face deportation out of Pakistan after an expulsion order for ‘illegal’ migrants was recently issued. The large majority of them are women and children.

Many Afghans now returning from Pakistan left decades ago. A lot of the younger ones lived their entire lives in Pakistan, often in big cities. They now have to go back to places of origin they hardly know, often rural villages, and start from scratch, in a country that already has over 6 million internally displaced people. A country, on top of that, still recovering from decades of conflict, political turmoil, an economic crisis, and recent earthquakes. And with little support from the outside world, as international funding for Afghanistan has rapidly dwindled after the Taliban regime came to power in 2021.

A major operation

Latif Bashardost, Cordaid’s Country Director in Afghanistan, recently visited several returnee campsites. “Half a million Afghans have come back from Pakistan in the past two months alone”, he says. “Handling this is a major operation. The current government is deploying whatever means it has to welcome and host Afghans returning from Pakistan. A lot of governmental departments are involved, including the military who are transporting returnees’ belongings to further and final destinations. The government is tested. For them, handling this crisis is a matter of proving themselves to the outside world. And a matter facilitating return after the exodus of 2021.”

“Returning to a country where women’s opportunities are extremely limited and where girls and young women have no access to education, is extra traumatic.”

At border sites, like the crowded one in Torkham, returnees are thoroughly screened and registered. “Authorities are making practical use of the digital population database established by the previous administration, which had scanned millions of identity documents in recent years”, Latif explains. “People whose Afghan identity can be confirmed then move on to further destinations. Those without identity cards, and there are many, have a big problem. They will remain in temporary camps until authorities have confirmed their identity and their places of origin. Of all the returnees, these are the most destitute and the ones most in need of support”, he adds.

A refugee camp in Pakistan.
Temporary campsite in Torkham. Image: Cordaid

What fate awaits women and girls?

“An estimated 80% of the returnees are women and children”, says Anne Kwakkenbos, Cordaid’s gender expert who pays regular visits to Afghanistan. “Their situation is particularly challenging. 15% of the families are women-headed households. Some are widows and have lost their husbands in years of armed conflict. Sometimes, their partner stays abroad, against all odds, to secure some kind of income. And then there is a large group of women who fled Afghanistan after the Taliban seized power in 2021. For them, returning to a country where women’s opportunities are extremely limited and where girls and young women have no access to education, is extra traumatic. Any humanitarian action has to consider their immediate and longer-term needs”, Kwakkenbos adds.

Cordaid response: food, water, shelter and winterisation

As a first response, using available financial resources from the Dutch Relief Alliance, Cordaid combined efforts with Afghan local humanitarian partners RRAA and OHW. Together, we have started reaching out to forced returnee families in Torkham in Nangarhar province. In the past months, this has been one of the most crowded and overstretched areas at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

“We focus on urgent and immediate needs”, Bashardost points out. “In December, we distributed 350 food packages every day to returnees who crossed the border. Packages include rice, meat, vegetables and fruit. In the same month, depending on their size, we hand out blankets and carpets to families, to get at least some protection against the cold. We also provide hygiene kits.”

Not all of the families staying in transit at the border have access to shelter. “This is why, with the means we have currently at our disposal, we provided 160 emergency cluster tents, equipped with blankets, carpets and other basic items”, says Bashardost.

Cordaid is also taking care of part of the water provision and waste management in the camp compound in Torkham. We have installed ten water tanks with safe and potable water. And, also in December, we paid and trained ten returnees every day, to clean parts of the camp. Their daily wages help them to support their families. To help clean even the most remote parts of the compound, we have hired a waste truck.

“This migration crisis hardly has the world’s attention. But these people need our support.”

Merciless winter conditions

The Afghan winter is getting harsher. Temperatures can drop to -50 degrees Celsius in some parts of the country. This is why, in the coming months, winterisation support is crucial. “Also for families leaving the camp and moving on to further destinations”, Bashardost explains. “We try to make sure that as many families as possible leave with at least some proper blankets.”

Aid workers in a Pakistani refugee camp.
Aid workers handing out items to a couple that was forced to return. Image: Cordaid

Longer term needs

Beyond the immediacy of winter conditions, Bashardost stresses the importance of livelihood assistance. “People have often lost everything, not only most of their belongings but also their means of income. Starting anew, in a country where most people are struggling to provide for their families, is going to be extremely tough. They will need all the support they can get, not only economically, but also mentally.”

A lot of the people Bashardost met had gone through traumatic experiences. “They feared being arrested in Pakistan, had to hide, were harassed, and sometimes extorted on their arduous journey to Afghanistan. Mothers were separated from adult daughters who stayed behind with their Pakistani husbands. Many of the returning mothers are the sole caretakers of younger children and have no future perspective whatsoever. All that is a lot to carry.”

In Afghanistan, Cordaid is investing its limited means as wisely as possible. In a country where two-thirds of the population needs humanitarian assistance, and with dwindling international support, this is a balancing act.

Forgotten crisis

“This migration crisis hardly has the world’s attention. But these people need our support. This is why Cordaid decided to include returnees in all our emergency programmes from now on, whether it be livelihood support, mental health support or other forms of support. And of course, we will continue to lobby for more support to the people of Afghanistan”, Bashardost concludes.