Editor in Chief: Dr. Hussain Yasa Sunday, March 26th, 2017

No Strategies to Cope with Returnees Overflows

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No Strategies to Cope with Returnees Overflows

Afghanistan is in grave need of international support to cope with millions of refugees who are on the eve of returning home while some 700,000 have already repatriated and millions more displaced due to longstanding conflicts. It is said that March 2017 is the last extended deadline for almost 2.5 million Afghan refugees to legally reside in Pakistan whereas the country is not ready to receive them jointly. Increasing tensions between Afghanistan and its neighbors, especially Pakistan, and deteriorating security conditions within the country intensified the issues. Salvatore Lombardo, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) country representative in Afghanistan, says a more challenging period lies ahead for the Kabul government and international agencies seeking the reintegration of refugee populations both within and outside Afghanistan.

According to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), Pakistan has some 1.5 million registered refugees while another one million are estimated to be unregistered most of them fled the Soviet occupation of the country in the 1980s. It means that as many as one tenth of whole population is going to be added to the current jobless inhabitants. Generally, most of them lived abroad as laborers and are poor but when they return to the country are likely confront more dreadful conditions. However, there might be wealthier returnees but typically returning refugees have a high risk of falling into poverty—as the rate of unemployment is enormously high in the country.

In addition, thousands of Afghan asylum seekers, in western countries, either wandering due to unspecified destiny or will be deported. Recently, several hundred migrants, including Afghans, stranded in freezing weather in Serbia staged a protest urging Europe to open its borders. Aid groups have warned that migrants in Serbia have been at risk of low temperature since extreme winter weather gripped the Balkan country in early January. Some 7,000 migrants have been staying in Serbia's asylum camps or sleeping rough in parks or make-shift shelters. When the nations along the former Balkan migrant route - leading from Turkey through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia - closed their borders one after another in March 2016, thousands of migrants were trapped along the route.

Unfortunately, none of the issues are pursued with a clear reactive and preventive action strategy. The Afghan government’s measures to address the issue have been some sort of reactions to an urgency rather than long-term planning for resolving the problem. The government cannot resolve the issue without addressing the root causes of challenges in the country forcing the citizens to take precarious journey abroad. On the hand, the government will not be able to solve the crisis through arbitrary measures which do not deal with the main causes of the migration problem. There have been visible inconsistencies in the policies and approaches of government institutions towards migration of Afghans to other countries. Only through long-term, sustainable and cohesive policies the government would be able to tackle the challenges fundamentally and to more extent successful.

The major policy of the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation has been to protect rights of the Afghan refugees and negotiate with the countries hosting Afghan refugees to help them settle or return voluntarily. However, the government sent a very contradicting message to the hosting countries. On one hand, initially the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation, and later the Parliament, urged the European countries not to deport Afghan refugees. But later German officials announced the president Ghani had agreed to accept the deported Afghans from the country. The announcement led to an angry outcry from both inside the country and Afghan refugees in European countries. Though government officials denied any such agreement, the suspicions remained in place, including after President Ghani’s recent trip to Europe.

When a country receives a large influx of refugees over a short period, significant social and economic effects are likely, which are exacerbated in poorer countries like Afghanistan. On the positive side, returning refugees generally share the same culture as the local population, facilitating assimilation. Also, increased spending, both by the private and public sectors, as well as increased output if the incoming refugees are able to find jobs, can contribute positively to economic growth both in the short and medium term. But in a further thought, the prospects for absorbing returning refugees are far more complicated by the existence of more than one million internally displaced people, the number of which significantly increased in 2016 as the insurgency intensified. Together with the large number of people who already live in poverty in Afghanistan, these problems will severely stretch the country’s capacity to cope.

In brief, increased demand for food, consumer goods, health services, and housing can put upward pressure on prices and rents, negatively affecting the poor. And the increased supply of labor is likely to raise the already very high unemployment rate and put downward pressure on wages. The experience of other countries suggests that the inflow of refugees has had a significant impact on wages, particularly in the low-skill and youth sectors, where workers are most vulnerable. Equally important, the scale of the inflow has placed an undue burden on their public services and infrastructure. In Afghanistan, this raises the prospect of longer-term effects on economic and social development. For example, if basic services such as education and health cannot keep up with increased demand, some human capital—the stock of productive skills, talents, and health of the labor force—could be lost.

Mohammad Zahir Akbari is the permanent writer of the Daily Outlook Afghanistan. He can be reached at mohammadzahirakbari@gmail.com

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