The study presented by VIDC consultant Ali Ahmad investigates why Afghans decided to return to Afghanistan from Pakistan, and which professional skills gained in Pakistan have helped them to reintegrate in Afghanistan. The study is conducted under the project "'Dard Kush' II - Strengthening Livelihoods of Afghan Refugees and Pakistani Host Communities (with specific focus on women)". This project is currently implemented by Formation, Awareness & Community Empowerment Society (FACES) Pakistan in Lahore, together with Caritas Austria and Caritas St. Pölten, in partnership with VIDC and funded by the Austrian Development Agency (ADA).
A changed environment
When VIDC project partner, the Afghanistan Development and Peace Research Organization (ADPRO), began conducting interviews for this study in late 2020, the situation in Afghanistan was entirely different. Despite the extensive economic, social and, especially, security crisis in the country, there was still hope for a better future. This hope is reflected in the statements of the interviewees.
“I am happy to be in Afghanistan because this is my ancestor’s homeland, and it is like my mother. I want to serve this country by any opportunity that I get as a woman. This country is beautiful, and I am very happy to be here.” Sara
The ten families in¬terviewed for this study had lived in Pakistan’s Punjab region as refugees during the various phases of the war in Afghanistan, which began in 1978. These families had returned to Afghanistan after 2017 for personal reasons, promises of support by the former Afghan government, and as the result of pressure from Pakistani authorities arising from the growing political tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan over the years. The research participants came from different socio-economic backgrounds, had diverse working history, and lived and worked in various districts of Nangarhar. The participants included drivers, trainers, a former teacher, a traditional medicine practitioner, a lab technician, and a housewife.
Nangarhar, as one of the hubs for returnees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in eastern Afghanistan, accommodates the largest return population in the country. The province, however, has limited resources to offer to the returnees, due to its large population of IDPs and returnees, particularly from Pakistan. The respondents were largely concerned about unemployment, lack of a regular income, securi¬ty and access to other essential services such as health¬care and education.
Drivers of return
Among the drivers of return, such as mistreatment and extortion, Asli Watan was cited as a significant factor for all 10 families. Homesickness, nostalgia and the feeling of longing for one’s home country was aggregated by the feeling of not belonging, prejudice and discrimination based on stereotypes, lack of employment opportunities and, at times, the deteriorating political relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Afghanistan as the ‘true homeland’, was linked to the sense of ‘belonging’, the comfort of living in Asli Watan and bringing honor to one’s family.
The respondents developed sentimental ties towards Asli Watan during their time in Pakistan, where they experienced a sense of not belonging to Pakistani society. Respondents felt that they were deprived of their basic rights and were treated as inferior to the dominant Punjabi host communities. Respondents said that people in Pakistan called them ‘mahajer’ (refugee), which gave them the feeling of not being permanent residents and needing to leave Pakistan.
“The only thing Pakistan can give us is continued lack of disrespect and sense of loss of identity. Afghanistan is my Asli Watan. Afghanistan gives me a sense of belonging and respect. I request other Afghan refugees to return to our true homeland.” Bashir
The decision to return to Afghanistan while it was plagued with war and corruption was a difficult one to make. The situation in Afghanistan was difficult at best. However, the promise of reintegration services by the former Afghan government was one of the motivations for return. Upon the respondents’ return after 2017, Afghanistan was suffering from a deteriorating security situation, rampant corruption, the rise of Islamic State (Daesh in Eastern Afghanistan), and growing unemployment throughout the country, but particularly in the Nangarhar province.
“There is no real reintegration program for returnees. This might be just on paper but there is nothing in practice. When we crossed the Torkham border, we were assisted with some food items. My son was promised that he would be given a piece of land, but nothing has happened so far. The government makes only promises, nothing else.” Habib-ur Rahman.
Challenges of reintegration
The 10 research respondents cited security and economic difficulties as the main challenges facing them after their return. They reported that life in Afghanistan was unpredictably dangerous. They repeatedly compared their lives in Pakistan, where they were mistreated and discriminated against, with circumstances in Afghanistan. They said they had similar problems in both countries, but in Afghanistan they faced enormous challenges to find work while risking their lives. Several of them stated that they would accept the risks of living in Afghanistan if they had better employment opportunities.
“Economic difficulties in Nangarhar are bigger than the security situation. For us, unemployment is a bigger threat than security. (...) We have needs in this country. Our needs are legitimate and our basic rights, but we cannot meet our needs in Afghanistan. The government cannot provide us with basic services.“ Bashir
Respondents were asked accessing which of the services posed major challenges after return. In addition to employment and security, all 10 families discussed access to education, healthcare, drinking water, electricity and shelter. Cor¬ruption was also a topic associated with services mentioned by the respondents. The interviewees compared the services in Afghanistan available to returnees, to services they had access to in Pakistan. All returnee families said that their children did have access to primary and high school education, regardless of the Nangarhar district in which they lived, and that they were content that their children were able to go to school. Some, however, expressed concern about the quality of education services provided in Afghanistan.
The observational data documented by ADPRO researchers suggested a variation in how the lives of the returnees changed or did not change in the two months between two interview visits. The lack of security, unemployment, persistent poverty, spread of COVID-19 and uncertainty around peace negotiations between the ex-Afghan government and the Taliban were the dominant concerns for all respondents during both visits. The peace negotiation was the only point of optimism that the respondents had for their future (dashed by the 15th of August 2021 collapse of the Afghan government and the Taliban takeover).
“Life is going on with all its challenges. Life is not only difficult for me but for all Afghans. Allah help us overcome this situation. There is no value in the democracy. There has to be a government like the Taliban government to control things. If people break the law, a dictator government like the Taliban must hit the violators on their heads. In this so-called Democratic system, people break the laws, kill and rob. Yet, there is no accountability and rule law. We Afghans all face this difficult period in our life and hope that peace prevails.” Shaheen
After the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August last year, the country is facing a humanitarian catastrophe and in urgent need of assistance. The topic of return will continue to generate interests not only among states and policy makers, but also among international organizations on migration. Further research is required to explore the livelihood conditions and reintegration challenges of Afghans that continue to return to Afghanistan. Further research will reveal how Afghanistan copes with the humanitarian crisis that it is facing after the departure of international community and the fall of the former government.