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Problems with the Reintegration of Afghan Refugees

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Afghan refugees are beginning to return to Afghanistan. These returning refugees are creating new problems for Afghanistan as many are landless and therefore crowd the major cities, especially Kabul. Efforts to identify land for the returnees has floundered because of corruption and red tape. In addition, single Afghan men are being forcefully expelled from Iran and Europe creating new tensions. Refugees began fleeing Afghanistan in the 1980s as a result of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979 and the war of resistance that followed. After the Soviet withdrawal in in 1989 some refugees began to return, but the Soviet occupation was soon followed by a major civil war in1992 when the mujahideen took control of Kabul and more refugees fled. This was followed by rule of the Taliban from 1996 to 2001. Although some refugees had begun to return during this period, the war waged against the Taliban government by the Northern Alliance and other groups forced more Afghans to flee.

Returning Refugees

Now refugees are beginning to return in larger numbers. Over the past three decades over 6 million refugees have returned. (IOM-UNHCR, 2017) Much of this repatriation took place between 2002 and 2008 in the years after the defeat of the Taliban government when the future of Afghanistan appeared optimistic. Most of these returning refugees were from Iran and Pakistan, and many participated in the UNHCR volunteer repatriation program (Duenwald, 2017). In a country with a population of just over 30 million, these returning refugees constitute over 20 percent of the population of Afghanistan. While there are some success stories, in general the returnees have negatively impacted Afghan society, placing a large burden on the infrastructure of a country that was already stretched thin (UN News ,2018).

Not only has the flow of refugees returning increased, but the demographic characteristics of these new returnees have changed as well. The refugees returning before 2008 were largely in family groups or in some cases whole villages. (Reliefweb, 2018) Now many of the returnees are young single men who do not want to return to Afghanistan but are being deported from Iran or Europe. (Constable, 2018). While the earlier returnees from Pakistan were mostly ethnic Pashtuns, most of the new returnees, especially those from Iran and Europe, are Hazara and Tajiks, minorities in Afghanistan. (Feroz, 2016) The reintegration of these new returnees presents new challenges for Afghanistan. Most do not want to be back in Afghanistan and will re-migrate to Europe or Iran as soon as possible.

Land Ownership Disputes

A major challenges in reintegrating returning refugees is land rights and property ownership. Many of the refugees have been out of Afghanistan for over 30 years, and in many cases while they were away their property, including buildings and land, has been taken over by others. In some cases, their property may have been sold and resold several times. In an agrarian society such as Afghanistan, where over 70 percent of the population lives in rural areas, land ownership, or the tenant rights to farm, are closely linked to economic security, political power, and social status. Without land, Afghans cannot support themselves. (Bjelica, 2016)

The illegal occupation of land, land seizures, the unsanctioned use of land for pasture by Kuchis (pastoral nomads), and the use of land for illegal poppy production by warlords and anti-government elements are common causes of conflict, both within and between families, tribes, ethnic groups, warlords, armed opposition groups, and the government. (NAMA, 2015) With the high population growth and the massive return of refugees, the demand for arable land has risen steeply since 2001, increasing land value and fueling conflict over land ownership and use. (UNAMA, 2015)

Since refugees may have fled without written deeds or documents, or in many cases never had legal documents in the first place, written documentation of land ownership is often missing. In addition, since most Afghans cannot read or write, documentation of land ownership is often unwritten, part of the family or village oral history. It is estimated that at least 50 percent of Afghanistan land ownership is not formalized; no one knows who owns what (Deschamps 2009).

As a result, land ownership disputes within families were common in Afghanistan even before the refugee repatriation crisis. Claims and disputes can take years to resolve. As a result, many returning refugee families do not even bother to reclaim their land or property, especially where powerful warlords or rich elites have confiscated the land. (UNAMA, 2015)

Solving the land problem in Afghanistan has not been easy. Afghanistan has layers of incompatible and confusing laws, regulations, and governmental decrees dealing with land ownership and use. In addition, various governments have given land to political and military elites, or illegally seized lands without regard to prior title. These conflicting laws, regulations, seizures and practices provide a confusing myriad of competing obligations and rights concerning land ownership, use, and access. (Deschamps, 2009)

In addition, the governmental judicial system is corrupt and ineffective, and therefore distrusted and avoided by most Afghans. It has been estimated that over 80 percent of the land dispute cases end up in the traditional dispute resolution system, that is, in local jirgas or shuras (Deschamps 2009). These traditional non-governmental court systems can often be effective, especially since they have more creditability with the people than the governmental court system, however, they have their inherent biases. For one, as with many Afghan systems, they discriminate against women and minorities, Because of the high casualty rate among men in the last 30 years there are a disproportionate number of women head of households. According to Islamic Sharia law, women do........

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