For most of last year, massive numbers of trucks could be seen crossing into Afghanistan at the Torkham border with Pakistan, loaded not with flour, cooking oil or any of the other usual imports, but with returning Afghan refugees together with all their worldly goods.
Many are returning to their homeland after decades spent in Pakistan and are bringing everything they own and can carry. Trucks are loaded high with mattresses, kitchen utensils, bicycles, fans, firewood, wardrobes, plastic water tanks, even timber taken from their old homes ready to build new ones. It is not unusual to see animals tethered on top – chickens, cats, cows, goats, sheep and sometimes dogs.
The trucks are not only piled high with belongings, but family members, too, sitting on the top of all the stuff – women, men, girls and boys. For many of the “returnees,” it is their first time back in Afghanistan for decades. For some, those born in Pakistan, it is their first time ever, now back and moving toward new and sometimes unknown destinations.
A Peak in Returns
More than 600,000 Afghans returned from Pakistan in 2016, according to reports by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR.
During the first six months of last year, just 7,000 Afghans returned. Then, the numbers picked up dramatically due to pressure from the Pakistani government. This included house raids by police and eviction notices. Returns peaked in the second half of last year.
After a winter lull, the returns have again picked up this year. According to the U.N. humanitarian coordination agency, OCHA, 17,970 undocumented Afghan returnees crossed the border from Pakistan between January and March 2017, 20 percent more than in the same period last year.
Most of the recent returnees have chosen Nangarhar province as their new home. IOM found in a survey of the heads of 306 households of undocumented refugees that 76 percent said they planned to settle in Nangarhar. OCHA has put the figure of all returnees who are now settled in Nangarhar – both documented and undocumented and coming from Pakistan, Iran and abroad – at around 418,000. The population of Nangarhar, which was about 1.5 million in 2012–13 according to the Central Statistics Office, has increased by about one-third in less than a year, if these estimates are correct.
Local officials in Nangarhar said about 30 percent of all the returnees who settled there were originally from other provinces, most of them neighboring ones. However, they said those returnees appeared to have no intention to move on to their respective provinces.
Strain on Social Services
This rapid increase in Nangarhar’s population has put a strain on government services, including health and education.
The city’s main hospital, the provincial council member Zmaray told the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN), was built to cater for a population of about 1.3 million people in the 1970s, but is now overcrowded and struggling to provide services. He said all wards and bedrooms were full and new patients were either having to wait in corridors or in the open yard of the hospital. A doctor at the provincial hospital in Jalalabad city who did not want to be named said that the daily rate of babies being born there had doubled, from 60 to 120 per day.
Education department officials tell similar stories. According to the department’s director, Allahdad Ismailzai, the number of students at Nangarhar High School, located in the center of Jalalabad, has more than doubled. The education department managed to enroll a total of 34,000 additional students and pupils from returnee families in schools all over the province.
Lack of Economic Opportunities
The diverging amounts of aid handed out to different groups of returnees indicate a degree of spontaneity in the reactions to a problem that had taken everyone involved by surprise and that has been triggered by bilateral Afghan-Pakistani tensions.
Such assistance, while welcome, also does not last long, and most families need to find their own income fast. Some of the returnees seek work as daily laborers, going to Talashi Square in Jalalabad city where employers usually look for mazdurkaran, the Afghan term for this widespread form of precarious employment.
According to the IOM survey, an estimated 31 percent of those intending to repatriate planned to be looking for daily wage labor, but even that kind of work is scarce. Between March and December 2016, civil society activist Noor Agha Zwak told AAN, the estimated number of day laborers in all of Jalalabad increased sixfold, from about 300 to about 2,000.
“Me and my friends hardly get a single job once a week,” said Zaman Gul, who is in his mid forties. “When we were in Pakistan, we could find work sometimes six days, or at least a few days a week.”
There are vague plans from the local government to provide more job opportunities, but local government officials admitted that, so far, they had been unable to offer the returnees very much.
Not all returnees are poor. Some of those interviewed in October 2016 had sold their businesses in Pakistan and planned to use the capital to start new businesses (or buy a home or a plot of land) or had managed to move their businesses from Pakistan to Jalalabad.
Land Price Hikes
When returnees arrive, they often first try to find a house to rent and later try to buy land to construct a house of their own in the same neighborhood. Most of the returnees prefer to live in Jalalabad city, or in its surrounding districts. As a result, in many of these areas the rents and land prices have dramatically increased.
According to a property dealer named Shakirullah, in the early summer of 2016 a four-roomed house could be rented for around 13,500 Afghani ($200), but by the end of 2016 it had become difficult to find such a home for less than 33,750 Afghani ($500).
As a result, there is now a new trend among the rich to buy land and build houses so they can rent them out to returnees. Those well off consider it a booming business and a good opportunity for making quick and easy money. This further fuels the hikes in rent and in land prices. For all but the rich among the returnees, the price hikes in land prices and rent have made it difficult to find a new home.
The high demand for land plots has also provoked new land disputes and encouraged land grabs by individuals seeking either to sell onward or to build houses for sale or rent.
In Daman district and others, the number of returnees has changed the local rich-poor dynamics as well as local hospitality patterns. In the recent past, people from other provinces who owned property in the area would still allow poor people to live in their houses for free. But with the arrival of so many returnees, the owners have started to rent out their houses.
A local tribal elder, Murad Gul, complained that the hike in rent was eroding the traditional spirit of generosity among people, who in the past would help the poor by allowing them to use their houses for free.
This is an edited excerpt from the Afghanistan Analysts Network. Read the full article on their site: Resettling Nearly Half a Million Afghans in Nangarhar: The Consequences of the Mass Return of Refugees.