According to UNHCR and the World Bank, Afghans are one of the largest protracted refugee populations in the world. Last year 1.2 million were on the move, including 380.000 IDPs. Poverty, unemployment, and long-lasting conflicts have led millions of them to flee their country. The most popular destinations for displaced Afghans are the neighboring states of Iran and Pakistan. Especially Iran has always been a lifeline for Afghans seeking a job or fleeing conflict. It is estimated that there are 1million registered and 2 million unregistered Afghans in Iran. Before the beginning of the COVID19 pandemic, Afghans were occupied in constructions, farms, and factories in Iran, and remittance payments were a major part of the Afghan economy. Officially those remittance payments constituted 3-5% of Afghanistan’s annual gross product but actually according to IOM they constitute 15-20% because big amounts of money are transferred via the unofficial hawala money transfer system.

 Due to the COVID19 pandemic and the US sanctions Iran’s economy has been devastated and living conditions have become hard even for locals. A significant number of Afghans are forced to leave the country mainly because of soaring living costs and growing hostility. Others are being deported and there is a public generally unwelcoming of Afghans. According to testimonials, those without documents and formal legal status are the most defenseless in Iran but even those with proper documents face discrimination. In 2020, 860.000 Afghans were pushed back home from Iran, which is a record number. I addition, there is an increasing number of Afghan returnees from Pakistan as there is almost no protection for refugees in the country. Although Spin Bolak Border was closed on the 2nd of March 2020 because of COVID19 restrictions, there were exceptions for the return of Afghan and Pakistan nationals from Afghanistan and Pakistan to their respective countries.

 Returnees feel like strangers in their own country as they have lost their livelihoods and social networks and employment opportunities are very few after the return. Afghanistan is facing long-lasting crises on multiple levels. It is estimated that 40% of the population faces an emergency level of crisis. There is food insecurity and 1/5 of households have catastrophic dept. Daily wage jobs are hard to find and most Afghans do not have the capital to start their own business. There is protracted conflict and thousands of deaths and injuries per year. Many provinces like Logar are still under Taliban rule and there is fighting every day as Taliban and Afghanistan officials’ peace negotiations have stalled and violence rises. Moreover, the experts predict drought which will worsen the situation as Afghanistan’s agriculture is dependent on rain and snowmelt and almost 42% of the population will be impacted by famine. The COVID19 pandemic is undoubtedly an additional problem. According to IOM half of the population may need humanitarian assistance this year. Settlement decisions for returnees are affected by physical security reasons, social network proximity, and economic reasons. A significant number of them live in temporary settlements around big cities like Herat, Jalalabad, and Kabul as others return to the province of origin.

 UN refugee and migration agencies, IOM and UNHCR, provide humanitarian relief to the returnees when they arrive back home. Specifically, IOM covers some basic needs at the borders and also provides a travel stipend as UNHCR provides a cash grant for reintegration and covers transportation costs. They also provide medical care, mine risk awareness, and advice on accessing education, civil documentation, and available land. In addition, the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation offers limited vocational training for some returnees. However, most of the returnees intend to go back to Iran or Pakistan. They claim that life there is much better than in Afghanistan even without having a job. Although some of them have been deported many times they are planning to go back because in Afghanistan they have to deal with insecurity, poverty, and conflict daily.

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