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publication July 14, 2019

Social Ties, Safety, and Jobs Drive Decision-Making of Afghan Returnees

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Afghan refugee families waiting to return home at UNHCR’s voluntary repatriation center in Chamkani, Peshawar in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Upon reaching Afghanistan they will receive a cash grant to help them reintegrate, along with medical care, mine risk awareness, and advice on accessing education, civil documentation, and available land. 

Photo: UNHCR /S. Rich


Findings from a 2018 Phone Survey of Afghan Returnees and UNHCR data

Afghan citizens form one of the largest protracted refugee populations in the world; many Afghans have lived in exile for decades.

, including over half a million registered refugees who returned under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) facilitated voluntary return program and received immediate humanitarian assistance.

At the height of the wave of returns to Afghanistan in 2016, little was known about the settlement patterns and needs of the more than 2 million Afghan returnees who had come back to Afghanistan since 2014.

In light of this knowledge gap, the World Bank Group and UNHCR formalized a joint data sharing and analysis agreement with the objectives to provide data analysis in support of improved targeting of humanitarian responses and development assistance for returned Afghans.


The report Living Conditions and Settlement Decisions of Recent Afghan Returnees: Findings from a 2018 Phone Survey of Afghan Returnees and UNHCR data is the first joint report resulting from this collaboration between the UNHCR in Afghanistan and the Poverty and Equity Global Practice of the World Bank Group.

and thereafter, with a particular emphasis on documented returnees. It contributes to understanding the return process, the influence of household characteristics and prevailing economic and security considerations and living conditions of refugees who returned to Afghanistan.

The report relies on three data sources: (i) the Afghan Population Profiling, Verification and Response survey, a large-scale household survey conducted by the Government of Pakistan and UNHCR, (ii) the Voluntary Repatriation Form survey collected by UNHCR at the time of return, and (iii) a recently collected World Bank Phone Survey. The 2018 phone survey sheds light on post-2013 returnees and their movements and choice of location, labor market attachment, and access to services.

Key Findings

  • Refugees who returned to Afghanistan after 2014 tended to be those who were worse off than refugees who remained in Pakistan and tended to be those who retained ties to their native country. More specifically, refugees who returned to Afghanistan between 2014 and 2017 were less wealthy, lived in refugee villages in Pakistan or temporary housing, had previously (5+ years earlier) considered repatriating, and visited Afghanistan regularly.
  • Once in Afghanistan, most refugees returned to their province of origin, valuing proximity to family and friends, even though these provinces tended to have lower employment rates and higher poverty rates.
  • Kabul and Nangarhar provinces alone accounted for a third of all returnees. Returnees who did not settle in their province of origin moved to relatively urban areas, driven largely by considerations of safety and access to economic opportunity. This movement to population centers is likely putting additional pressure on urban and peri-urban areas, which are already hosting internally displaced populations. 

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  • Afghan refugees face economic difficulties upon return to Afghanistan, coming back to an economy that at present produces few job opportunities. Social ties play an important role in finding work, somewhat compensating for return to provinces of origin that tend to be poorer, less urban, and with higher joblessness.
  • Returnees generally experience a deterioration in employment opportunities, wages, and job stability after returning to Afghanistan. Although most families have at least one person working for pay, they face low job stability and low wages.

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  • Access to education improves post return for both boys and girls and the gender gap in school attendance is reduced, driven by an increase in the number of households where all girls attend school.

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  • In addition to the availability of work, access to health and education is another critical need. Educational attainment remains low among returnees. These challenges apply widely to the hosting population as well as to internally displaced persons.

Challenges to Address

  • This report sheds light on the return decisions and living conditions of Afghan returnees, which are more pertinent than ever with the increase in the number of refugees in protracted situations. Along with integration and third-country settlement, repatriation is considered one of the long-term solutions for forced displacement.
  • Effective management of the displacement challenge will be critical for Afghanistan’s economic and political future and a robust policy response requires understanding of the specific socio-economic conditions and needs of refugee returns. Yet, reliable socio-economic data on displacement in Afghanistan have been difficult to obtain.
  • In general, over time, analysis of data on socio-economic outcomes of returnees may be useful in identifying opportunities for reintegration into Afghanistan’s socio-economic landscape: that is, to better understand why some groups performed unusually well, despite adversity, and whose success may hold lessons for others.
  • Analysis such as in this report can yield its full benefit when it can be compared in series with findings from subsequent iterations of the survey, giving a sense of how socio-economic outcomes are evolving.

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The World Bank phone survey was financed by a grant from the UK Department for International Development (DFID) Trust-Fund on forced displacement to generate evidence on displaced populations. DFID’s support is gratefully acknowledged.