Standing in a long queue under the shadow of towering pine trees outside the Iranian consulate in the western Afghan city of Herat, 52-year-old returnee Ghulam Haider plans to go back to neighbouring Iran to find work.
“I thought that living conditions had improved in our country and there was no further need to stay abroad,” said Haider, who returned to Herat last year along with his 11-member family after having lived in Iran for nearly 14 years.
“Unfortunately, there are no factories or any other sources of work, but only empty promises from the government,” the former exile complained.
Following the ouster of the hardline Taliban regime by US-led coalition forces in 2001 and the establishment of an internationally backed government in the country, millions of Afghans returned to their homeland from neighbouring Pakistan and Iran, hoping for stability and a better life.
But the destitute country, plagued by decades of war and destruction, is a long way from providing job opportunities for millions of its citizens. Now many returnees are turning back to neighbouring countries – where they once lived as refugees - to find work to provide for their families.
Over 4.5 million Afghans - including 1.47 million from Iran and another 3 million from Pakistan – have returned home since the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) started its voluntary repatriation programme in 2002, according to the UN refugee agency.
Officials at the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation (MRR) concede that the problem of unemployment and reintegration has caused a considerable decrease in repatriation from Pakistan and Iran where an estimated 4 million Afghans still live today.
“One of the most significant causes, which has led to the decrease in the repatriation of refugees from Pakistan and Iran, is the issue of providing jobs and shelter to the returned refugees,” Hafiz Nadem, a spokesman at the MRR, said in the capital, Kabul.
According to UNHCR, just 1,500 of the remaining 900,000 Afghan refugees in Iran have returned in the first few months of this year, while the figure for the same period in 2005 was over 12,000 – a 90 percent decline.
“Our statistics show a 30 percent decline this year in repatriation from Pakistan if we compare this time to 2005,” said Nader Farhad, a UNHCR spokesman in Kabul.
Keisuke Murata, deputy representative of the UNHCR mission, said that the problem of reintegration for returnees was directly related to the war-torn country’s economic development and rebuilding of shattered infrastructure.
“Reintegration is a huge issue and it would take a long time to provide sustainable employment opportunities to the returned refugees in Afghanistan,” Murata conceded.
Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries of the world, has over 25 million inhabitants and an official unemployment rate of 35 percent, according to the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (MLSA).
With high unemployment, a lack of arable land and an economy based mostly on subsistence farming, returnees have few chances.
“It is a serious concern for the international community, Afghanistan’s neighbours and the Afghan government that a large number of returnees come back with families and are struggling to feed their families, find work and have a better life,” Rahila Zafar, a public information officer at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) mission said, adding that thousands of returnees were still living in camps throughout the country.
“This is not a very ideal situation. These people should be able to easily enter the Afghan job market. Until this happens, they must continue to be the focus of the Afghan government and international donors as they are in desperate need of assistance,” Zafar said.