Returning refugees to Afghanistan struggle to earn a living wage, say UN agency

2 January 2009

Many Afghan refugees returning to their homeland in recent years, mostly from Pakistan, are struggling to make a living and to cope with their new surroundings, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The ethnic Turkmen of Afghanistan were historically a nomadic, desert-dwelling people, accustomed to moving in search of water until war forced them to flee their homes nearly 30 years ago.

Now 85 Turkmen families, who had spent the last decade as refugees in Pakistan, have made home in Qalinbafan, a village on the site of government allocated land in the north of the war-torn Afghanistan.

Many of the families now eke out a livelihood weaving carpets, which are later sold to traders in Pakistan. A carpet that could take two labour intensive months for an experienced weaver to make may fetch around $10.

“We were in Pakistan for 10 years. I was comfortable there. Everything was cheap and we were paid well for the carpets. I don't know why we came back,” Naseema, a 70-year-old grandmother of four who lives in a UNHCR camp in Qalinbafan, told the agency.

Her three neighbours have erected a long tent on the compound to house a massive loom and the carpet they are making will take three months to complete. It will earn them $200 and sell for over $1,000 in the West.

“Our traditions have changed over the years,” said a village elder. “Before, we used to make the girls start weaving as young as seven. Now they can go to school until they're about 15 [and] then start to weave.”

In the Afghan refugee villages of Pakistan, UNHCR funds primary schools for children, often the only chance for girls to learn to read and write. Repatriation is likely to negatively affect opportunities for education for children as well as a family''s income.

“The carpet business is not doing well,” Abdul Manam, an elder who returned from the Jalozai camp in Pakistan last year, told UNHCR. “We were paid $60 per metre in Pakistan, but now we''re paid $40 because of the weak rupee.”

Since 2002 more than 5 million people have returned to Afghanistan, the majority from neighbouring Pakistan and Iran. Some 4.3 million of them were assisted through the voluntary repatriation programme for Afghan refugees run by UNHCR.

Although over 277,000 people returned to Afghanistan 2008 alone, 99 per cent of them from Pakistan, the agency estimates there are still 2.8 million registered Afghans living in Pakistan and Iran.

UNHCR has attributed the high numbers of returnees to three main factors: the high prices of food and fuel which have strongly impacted Pakistan's economy, the closure of the large Jalozai refugee camp in the Pakistan''s North West Frontier Province (NWFP), and the “changing” security situation in Pakistan, particularly in NWFP, where the majority of Afghan refugees live.

 

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