The Importance of Vocational Training for Afghan Refugees in Iran and Pakistan

By Jasmin Mehovic,

SARID, May 2004


Although nearly three million Afghans have returned to their homeland from Iran and Pakistan since 2001, an equal number still remain in these two countries. Pointing out that Afghan refugees present an increasing burden on their economies, and that their return could play a significant role in Afghanistan’s
reconstruction, Iran and Pakistan have put pressure on the United Nations to speed up the repatriation process. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) recently signed tripartite agreements with both countries, pledging to repatriate 400,000 to 500,000 Afghans from Pakistan by the end of this year, and 500,000 Afghans living in Iran by the end of the summer. Promising millions of dollars in material and financial aid, UNHCR has appealed to local Afghan communities and regional leaders to do whatever they can to meet growing demands for jobs, education, health care, and shelter. A number of organizations, concurring that the main focus should remain on Afghanistan itself, suggest that the repatriation process could be far more effective if a greater emphasis is put on the vocational training of the Afghans awaiting repatriation in the refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan.

According to UNHCR, 87 percent of 1.6 million Afghans who returned from Pakistan in 2002 had no education. Lacking skills, most refugees could neither assist their country’s reconstruction nor take care of their family’s daily needs. In order to reduce this problem, the Japanese government, in cooperation with specialized UN agencies such as Unesco, Unicef, and Unifem, has initiated a number of projects that promote sustainable livelihoods for returning refugees. One such project is training secondary level teachers, for whom there is great demand in Afghanistan. Training for future teachers is also undertaken by Ockenden International, an independent charity organization, which started courses in the camps near the Afghanistan border in Pakistan’s Northwest Province. Ockenden funds more than 60 schools in nearly 14 refugee camps, where more than 2000 Afghan refugees have already been instructed how to teach a relevant curriculum in the Pashto and Dari languages.

The Belgian Ambassador to Iran and the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Economic Affairs signed last month a memorandum of understanding (MOU), aimed at fostering Afghanistan’s reconstruction by providing Afghan refugees with training in a number of practical skills, such as handicrafts, computers,
English language, and sewing. MOU pays particular attention to the training of needy women and households without breadwinners, making sure that they will be able to make a living once they return home. The courses, running from May 2004 to February 2005 will be held in Khorasan and Baluchestan provinces, in eastern Iran. A similar effort was initiated by the Rotary International six
months ago, which started training in tailoring, carpet waiving, welding and motorcycle repairing at the Mohammad Kheil refugee camp in Pakistan. More than 45,000 Afghan refugees, many of them women, have completed these programs.

These efforts have gotten a positive reception by the Afghans awaiting repatriation. Although for many refugees the security conditions were the crucial reason for leaving their homeland, for most of them it was the economic hardship that forced them to consider leaving in the first place. As much as free
transportation and material and financial aid – ranging from $3 to $30 – is regarded as a motivation for voluntary repatriation by many, the uncertainty of finding jobs back home often diminishes their enthusiasm. Despite the news about the humanitarian aid pouring into Afghanistan, many Afghans are doubtful that they will directly benefit from it. However, those who receive vocational training, and thus acquire transferable skills, are far more willing to leave their host countries. Such opportunities encourage repatriation far more effectively than the monetary incentives provided by the UN, or the restrictions on employment, education and health imposed by the Iranian and Pakistani governments in order to foster the refugees return.

Work with the refugees in Iran and Pakistan also greatly reduces the burden on the Afghan communities back home. Although the conditions have improved over the last two years, decades of conflict and five years of drought have left deep scars in Afghan society. Life in this war-ravaged country is still far from
normal. Afghanistan is not only still divided by factional disputes, but is a country where production and trafficking of illegal drugs make 50 percent of the national GDP. As much as further influx of the returnees could worsen the economic situation, the influx of trained workers, especially among women,
could bring momentum for economic and political transformation. Afghani women who received training in healthcare and education in the refugee camps could also foster changes in the social and cultural landscape of post-Taliban Afghanistan.

The success of the repatriation process should be measured not only by how soon the refugees leave their host countries, but also by the level of their integration into the workforce upon their return back home. Although the United Nations has stepped up efforts to provide vocational training to Afghan
refugees, there is much more that could be done. Work with non-governmental organizations, which do not lack experience, enthusiasm or competence, could be made far more coordinated and effective. That would not only increase interest among the refugees for voluntary repatriation, but it could also
revive diminishing aid from foreign donors, and provide much needed resources for the completion of the repatriation program.


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Related Links and Resources:

The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR)

Mehr News: Iran-Belgium Sign MOU on Joint Cooperation

Ockenden International: Education in refugee camps

Ockenden International: Teacher-Trainers

Catholic Relief Services: Afghan Regional Crisis

US Diplomatic Mission to Pakistan announce contributions totaling $9.5 million to eight non-governmental organizations for 13 projects that will assist Afghan refugees and returnees.

Afghan Women's Network

UNODC: Project teaches Afghan refugee women skills for a new life

Refugees International: Afghan Returnees: Home Is Where The “Hard” Is

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