How Afghanistan Is Building a Sustainable Future for Refugees

How Afghanistan Is Building a Sustainable Future for Refugees

By Ruchi Kumar

Burqa-clad Afghan refugees arrive at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) repatriation center in Torkham, as they cross through the main border between Afghanistan and Pakistan to return to their home country after fleeing civil war and Taliban rule.


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Gulshali uses a thick bamboo cane — a poor substitute for a walking stick — to make his way around the settlements near the dried banks of the Kunar River in Behsud District of Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan. Despite his disability, caused by a degenerative disease he can’t name, Gulshali is quick in his steps as he guides us through narrow mud lanes that surround makeshift shelters, to his home, which is a fabric tent donated by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).

Born in Afghanistan, Gulshali spent nearly 30 of his 35 years in Pakistan, having moved there as a child. But five months ago, amid tensions between Islamabad and Kabul, he was threatened with imprisonment unless he and his wife left. “I was given 24 hours to pack my life,” says Gulshali, who like many Afghans goes by just one name, as he welcomes us into his “compound” — four walls of stone and concrete that house his family’s tent. “We had no choice but to come to a country where we no longer knew anyone.”

But in Behsud, he found a community that sheltered his family and is now helping him build a house on a plot of land he purchased with the money he made with the distress sale of his house in Pakistan. His experience is part of an emerging, new partnership between aid agencies, local communities and returning refugees and internally displaced persons, that could reshape the way they are reabsorbed into the society they left. 

They have given us food, clothes and the support we’ve needed.

Gulshali, Afghan refugee who has returned to his country

More and more Afghan refugees — who fled their country for Pakistan during years of civil strife — are returning from an increasingly hostile host country. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), more than 835,000 undocumented Afghans have returned since 2016, a period when international agencies have faced a greater strain on their resources, and questions have grown over the effectiveness with which Afghanistan has used foreign aid.

Now, instead of working with the refugees and local communities separately, aid agencies are trying to bring the two together, relying on the centuries-old local Pashtunwali code that prioritizes helping those in need.


“They have given us food, clothes and the support we’ve needed,” says Gulshali, tearfully thanking Malik Sarwar, a village elder who has helped mobilize the local community in Behsud.

Just half a kilometer away from Gulshali’s tent, 40-year-old Mirajuddin lives in a compound with an extended family of more than 40 people, in a cluster of tents. They fled Daesh, aka the Islamic State Group, which has made inroads along parts of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The compounds internal migrants like Mirajuddin and refugees like Gulshali live in are provided by locals, who have taken in an estimated 1,268 families over the past year, says Sarwar.

Gettyimages 460189752

An internally displaced Afghan resident carries a heater and home appliances from the Norwegian Refugee Council in Herat in December 2014.

Source Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images

“A lot of them chose to come (to Behsud) because it is relatively safer and has still not been touched by the Daesh insurgents,” adds Sarwar. 

For sure, Afghans have a long-held tradition of hospitality, and nonprofits and aid agencies have witnessed instances of communities helping refugees. But aid agencies are now trying to weld that tradition into a more structured mechanism to help returning refugees and the internally displaced slowly find their feet again.

Sarwar has mobilized volunteers to conduct surveys among the returnees so as to help aid agencies distribute resources fairly and gather needed community support. And in late 2016, as returnees flooded back into Afghanistan, the NRC changed its traditional strategy, and instead of offering material assistance through its centers, it explored ways to get communities to come together and organize themselves, says William Carter, head of program at NRC. To Carter, such a mechanism is more sustainable and preferable to ones in which agencies address local communities and refugees separately.

“In the most satisfying instances, host communities realize the potential that displaced families bring, and together the community can flourish,” says Carter.

Sarwar sees it that way too. By providing the migrants and refugees loans for chicken farms, cows and livestock, the local community can simultaneously feed the fresh arrivals and improve its own food security, he argues. He also spots an opportunity in education. Most local girls and boys can’t go to school anymore — schools are few and are too far from the settlements. The refugees, on the other hand, are often educated yet forced to work as daily wage laborers. We can bring them together and create opportunities that can benefit all,” says Sarwar.

It’s a lesson in coexistence Afghanistan could well do with. The Taliban had existed in Mirajuddin’s village in Khogyani District for years, but when the Islamic State arrived there last year, clashes broke out between the two groups, recalls his octogenarian mother, requesting anonymity. Their house was damaged, and the livestock were killed. Fighting between different insurgent groups, and between these groups and government forces, has killed more than 10,000 civilians across Afghanistan in 2017 alone.

Life is tough in Behsud too. A hole in the ground near where Mirajuddin’s mother sits serves as a container for murky-looking water. But the local community, she says, has gone out of its way to help.

From bringing drinking water for families like Mirajuddin’s to providing medical support for Gulshali and others, it isn’t easy for Sarwar — and it’s getting harder as more refugees arrive. He urges fellow locals to help the refugees and displaced migrants with temporary shelter, in registering with the government’s Migrants Directorate, and most importantly, “by showing sympathy and brotherhood toward them.”

Local communities — on whose generosity rests this new partnership involving aid agencies and displaced families — are struggling too, though. Employment is at an all-time low across the country, and resources are scarce. As the war and insecurity gains momentum across the region, essentials like medical and emergency services are in short supply. “We offer basic support in food and shelter. But this is not enough,” says Sarwar.

Still, the community in Behsud isn’t stepping back. “Every Afghan is our brother, and when a brother is in trouble, it is the duty of all brothers to help him,” says Sarwar. That sense of duty, he adds, overrides the poverty locals grapple with. Sarwar is clear: “We can’t turn anyone away.”