The Distress of Afghanistan's Repatriates

Hope in a Time of War and Deportation

Repatriates returning to Afghanistan face not only warlike conditions, but also certain hardship. Amidst all this affliction and political tension, one NGO is trying to help repatriates gain a foothold on the labour market. Martin Gerner reports from Herat

photo: Martin Gerner
Afghan refugees at the Eslameghale border crossing in the province of Herat; every day hundreds of Afghans with and without papers are deported by the Iranian authorities

​​The scorching wind at the Eslameghale border crossing blows grains of sand into the eyes. Small groups of people slowly push hard-carts piled high with their worldly goods − blankets, pots and pans, toys − through the oppressive heat between lines of trucks. Women in headscarves carry infants in their arms; beads of perspiration trickle down their faces. Most of them look exhausted, worn out. The trucks, which are laden with goods, cross the border at snail's pace.

The goods have it better than the people. For a year now, Iran has been stepping up its deportation of both legal and illegal Afghan immigrants. The reason given is the pressure created by the number of refugees flooding into the country from Iraq. However, it is just as likely that the Iranian government is using the deportations to destabilise its neighbouring country. After all, what hurts the Afghan government, hurts the USA. This policy has turned thousands of people into political pawns to be shunted about at will.

"I had to pack my things overnight and leave my family in Iran," says a young man at the checkpoint.

In the dusty wind of a hot and sunny afternoon, members of the aid organisation HELP wait on the Afghan side of the border. They approach the repatriates. "Unlike the UNHCR, we take care of repatriates who don't have any papers," explains Kabir Ahmad.

Prospects for those who have lost hope

photo: Martin Gerner
Mir Hamze (right) with his family in the HELP accommodation centre in Herat; the 46-year-old would like to return to Helmand to work the land once he has finished his training

​​22-year-old Samira is wearing a green headscarf and has returned to Afghanistan with her baby. She has left her husband, a drug addict, in Iran. After an initial consultation, HELP offers her food and shelter. In return, she agrees to take part in a four-month occupational training programme.

"The objective of our programme is to improve the work prospects of at least 1,000 Afghan repatriates who find themselves in a precarious situation," explains Alfred Horn, head of HELP's Afghan office in Herat. "The repatriates learn a profession that will allow them to work independently and support their families."

Mir Hamse is a stocky, 46-year-old Pashtun. He, his wife, and six children have been living in HELP's home for families for five weeks now. He spent seven years casting and moving heavy concrete blocks on building sites in the Iranian city of Isfahan. His hands bear all the hallmarks of this gruelling work.

"The Iranian authorities gave me two days to pack up and leave. I had to leave a lot behind me. My last employer didn't pay me my wages."

Help for the needy seen as a subversive activity

photo: Martin Gerner
Learning to become a tailor in the HELP workshop: after four month's training, these young men should be in a position to run their own business

​​Before he left Iran, Mir Hamse sought help from HELP's partner organisation there. "We register the people that come to us," says the project co-ordinator, who would prefer to remain anonymous in view of the politically explosive nature of the organisation's work, "this means that they are at least legal until the time of their deportation."

The work done by HELP's Iranian partner is a tightrope walk. Officially, assisting Afghans can be interpreted as being hostile to the Iranian state, which is why HELP's partner office in Iran had to close temporarily.

Mir Hamse and his family share a 15-square-meter room. His wife is now learning a craft. Mir Hamse goes as often as he can to the small garden where HELP is teaching repatriates the basics of agriculture.

Hoping for start-up assistance

photo: Martin Gerner
Most Afghan refugees find work in Iran's construction industry: some repatriates retrain as car mechanics

​​"I have a tiny plot of land in Helmand, my native province. The soil is fertile, so I want to go back," he says full of optimism. Seven years ago, Mir Hamse fled from the Taliban. The fact that parts of Helmand are now a war zone does not deter him from returning home. "My village is not at war. But there isn't enough water. I need a pump; I hope I can get some start-up assistance so that I can buy one."

The prospects are good. Once he has completed his training in Herat, one of HELP's Afghan partner organisations will look after him for the first four months after his return. He will receive a total of US$ 560, $70 for each member of his family.

"When things go well, our project can turn losers into winners in just eight months," says Alfred Horn. It is no easy task. Mir Hamse doesn't come to class every day; he also works as a day-labourer in Herat. "It's the only way I can buy clothes for my children and repay my debts," he says.

Martin Gerner

© 2008

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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