Jalandar Khan, who declares his age as 100, sits on a rock outside one of the reception centres set up to assist returnees at the border crossing with Pakistan in Torkham, Afghanistan.
After leaving 40 years ago with his wife and three children, he is coming back with over 60 family members, including grand- and great-grandchildren born in Pakisan. “I am pretty happy. Now, if I die it is OK — I can be buried in my own village,” he says.
However, Jalandar has no home to go back to, as is the case with most returnees. If they are lucky, they can stay with relatives while they try to build a new life for themselves.
Since the beginning of 2017, over 120,000 Afghans have returned from Pakistan and Iran. Forced to leave by 40 years of on-and-off conflict, millions of people have spent years — or even decades — away from their home country.
Many of them never had official refugee documents, which made things even more difficult. “Having no papers meant we were often in trouble with the police, and eventually had to leave,” says Malika, whose family fled to Pakistan 38 years ago — eight before she was born.
The volatile context in many parts of the country is making this a very uncertain homecoming. As intermittent conflict and violence still haunt large parts of the country, and the remnants of decades of war make fields, pastures and roads unsafe. Returnees will need sustained, long-term support.
As soon as they cross the border back into Afghanistan at Torkham, people are welcomed at two reception centres, set up by the Government of Afghanistan, the World Food Programme (WFP), the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and several other UN agencies and NGOs.
At the first one — called the “zero” point — returnees are vaccinated against polio and have their status verified by a joint IOM and Government team. They receive a US$ 50 per person allowance from the Government and register for assistance with WFP, and their need for further support is assessed.
In the same centre, UN agencies and NGOs provide them with medical attention and landmine-awareness sessions, to warn them of potential dangers as they return to former war zones.
Those families that are identified as more vulnerable then proceed to the so-called transit centre, where they receive food assistance from WFP and non-food essentials from other organizations such as IOM and UNICEF.
WFP’s food parcels include a month’s worth of fortified wheat flour, vegetable oil, pulses and iodized salt.
WFP has been supporting vulnerable families returning to Afghanistan since October 2016, and plans to continue doing so until the repatriation is completed. Assistance will be delivered either in kind or — where markets are functioning and food is available — cash.
At the onset of the return crisis, WFP also strengthened the capacity of government clinics in the east of the country to treat increasing numbers of malnourished children and pregnant and nursing women.
As he drives away from the transit centre with his load of WFP-provided food stocks, 25-year-old Jan Mohammad is hopeful for the future. Formerly a casual labourer in Pakistan, where he was born, he is going to live with his brother in Nangarhar province until he builds a new house for his young family, which he is hoping will continue to grow.