This week, donor nations will convene in Kabul for the Return and Reintegration conference. The objective is to enhance efforts to reintegrate Afghan refugees in their homeland. The conference is a good reminder that the Afghan refugee situation, among the longest running and most complex in the world, is far from over.
The mass exodus of Afghans began during the war against the Soviet Union. Since then, for more than two decades and largely without sufficient international assistance, Iran and Pakistan have generously hosted millions of Afghan refugees who fled the violence back home.
Recently, however, both countries have shown signs of fatigue over the long presence of Afghan refugees on their territory and have increased pressure for Afghans to return. Since 2002, over five million Afghans have voluntarily returned home, the majority with assistance from UNHCR (the U.N. Refugee Agency). This year alone, UNHCR has helped some 270,000 refugees return home from Pakistan.
But repatriation patterns are changing. Increasingly, decisions to return are driven not by expectation of a better life in Afghanistan but by rising prices and insecurity of life in exile. Many of the repatriating refugees have encountered harsh realities as the earlier hopes of durable peace, reconstruction and development in Afghanistan have faltered. Upon returning, they end up in makeshift shelters in barren deserts where the elements are unforgiving and the resources few.