By Naseem Sahar , Norwegian Red Cross

In the 1980s, Juma Khan was one of five million Afghans who fled the war with the Soviet Union, seeking refuge in Iran, Pakistan and other countries.

Thirty years later, he and his family of ten are back from Pakistan. But they can’t return to their original home in Afghanistan’s northern Kunduz province, where there’s now active conflict between government forces and the Taliban and Daesh (Islamic State). Instead they have returned to Heart province, in the West of Afghanistan.

“We heard that Herat province had job opportunities, so we arrived here with hope. But it’s hard to find a job and we couldn’t afford to rent a house and pay to live. So, we decided to settle in Maslakh Camp and see if we can earn a living doing odd jobs,” said Juma Khan, now aged 70.

Maslakh Camp was set up in Herat in 2000 to house internally displaced people (IDPs) fleeing conflict and drought in Badhghis, Farah, Faryab, Ghor and Herat provinces. The camp now also houses refugees and migrants returning from Iran and Pakistan. In all, 1,200 families live in Maslakh, which has a capacity of 3,000 families. People have access to a health facility established by the Ministry of Public Health and children go to nearby schools.

Even with the camp facilities, it is a bleak welcome in Afghanistan. Returnees often find themselves in precarious conditions with their well-being and dignity jeopardized by inadequate shelter, lack of food and water, insufficient access to sanitation and health facilities, and a lack of protection.

Juma Khan and other displaced breadwinners are forced to look for occasional day labour. They earn a pittance.

“We returned with little more than the clothes we were wearing. We didn’t really have any personal belongings. It’s tough to survive.”

The family’s plight came to the attention of the Afghan Red Crescent Society, which with the IFRC conducted an assessment of the people in Maslakh camp who were most at risk. Afterwards, 1,490 people were told they would receive basic emergency items such as blankets, kitchen sets and hygiene kits, water containers and tarpaulins and hygiene kits, with food distribution afterwards. The non-food distribution, carried out in early March 2018, is one of many times the Afghan Red Crescent has given emergency items to returnees. It complements other assistance from the government and other aid agencies.

Afghan Red Crescent Society Secretary General Dr Nilab Mobarez says, “For thousands of people returning home Afghanistan with very little, after years or decades away, these emergency items will help restore some basic health, privacy and dignity.”

IFRC’s head of country office Ariel Kestens says, “Too often, former refugees come back from Iran, Pakistan and other countries but cannot settle in their places of origin so they join the ranks of the more than 1.5 million internally displaced. These returnees have critical assistance and protection needs and need support to access housing, health services, decent work and often with day to day items to re-build their lives.

Meanwhile, Juma Khan is grateful for the assistance but says it should not be a one-off.

Now the Afghan Red Crescent aims to expand the programme to reach 12,000 returnees and displaced families across Badhghis, Farah, Faryab, Ghor and Herat provinces in the next 12 months.