Family reunification: An essential step in returnees’ journeys to safe and dignified reintegration in Afghanistan

Date Published: 
Saturday, May 15, 2021

Since 1993, the UN has designated 15th May to recognising and celebrating the value of families. Family composition and living arrangements vary hugely around the world, and in Afghan culture, parents and children often live in multigenerational households which include siblings’ families and elder parents. Family constitutes the first layer of protection for people affected by crisis, providing immediate care and support to recover from harm. When families are separated in the course of migration, people become more vulnerable to protection threats. Women that have been separated from their family during deportation, and return alone, are exposed to greater protection risks in Afghanistan where it is not socially acceptable for single women to travel or live on their own. 

Nargis (28) had grown up in Iran and was living there with her husband when, in the process of trying to reach Turkey for work, she and her baby daughter were arrested by the authorities and deported to Afghanistan. She told her story to IOM’s Protection team at the border: “I was born in Iran and lived there most of my life. When I was deported back, I had no one to turn to,”. To mitigate protection risks on the border and respond to her and her daughter’s immediate needs, Nargis was provided with emergency accommodation and could access counselling and medical care. They were then housed in a women’s shelter run by Voice of Women whilst the Protection team worked on tracing her uncle as she’d requested. “I was very worried, I was mentally under a lot of pressure,” Nargis says of that time. Once IOM had identified a family member that could temporarily host and support Nargis and her daughter, a flight was organized to safely reunite the family in Kabul, where a Protection caseworker was waiting at the airport.

Upon her arrival, the caseworker accompanied her to register with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, and she was soon reunited with her uncle’s family. While assessing her protection situation and plan for reintegration with the IOM caseworker, Nargis explained that her family were not well off themselves, and unable to take her and her daughter in for an extended period of time. They managed, however, to find a landlord who would rent a room to a single mother close to her relative’s homes – something which even in relatively metropolitan Kabul is very difficult to find. IOM provided cash assistance to cover her rent for the first few months whilst she finds her feet, and for buying basic household items and medicine for her baby. She was also referred to WFP for food assistance whilst she looks for a job to support her and her daughter. “Thank you, IOM, for all your assistance and helping us to live in better conditions.”

Freshta (32) is a single mother of seven children aged 3 to 14. Her husband, who suffered with drug addiction, died two years ago and left her alone to support the whole family in a rented house. Unable to provide for her children, she left for Iran in search of work, only able to take four of her children with her: “I could not feed them all. I was forced to give three to their uncle”. In Iran, she worked for three months in a greenhouse before being apprehended by the Iranian police without documentation and deported back to Afghanistan. IOM’s border team accommodated her and her four children overnight in the transit center and provided transportation support so they could travel back to Balkh safely.

When the Balkh IOM caseworker received a call from Freshta, they organized a house visit to assess her family situation. Her sister had taken her and her four children in when they had returned, but having her own family to support, all she could offer was a single room which meant Freshta was unable to bring her own family back together. Freshta’s 12-year-old son was trying to earn some income working as a porter with a rented wheelbarrow, but the economic effects of Covid-19 had hit markets hard and all he and his mother could contribute to the household most days was a loaf of bread. To cope with dire living conditions and feed her children, Freshta was considering marrying off her 14-year-old daughter.

The IOM caseworker and Freshta decided on an action plan to address immediate protection risks that she and her family were facing. Building on her tailoring skills, Freshta was referred to an IOM reintegration programme for undocumented returnees where she was offered a paid apprenticeship with a local tailoring company. She was also supported with cash assistance so she could rent a small home next door to her sister and reunite her family. Today, she has all her children living with her, and they are going to school whilst she earns a living to support them. “I had lost my three children as I was not able to feed them. I had also decided to marry off my 14-year-old daughter to get money to feed the rest. When I received the assistance from IOM, I could fetch them from their uncle. Now they are living with me and their brothers and sisters in one room, and I have changed my mind about my daughter’s marriage… Now I am very happy and thankful to God. IOM Protection assistance changed my life.”

15 May is International Day of Families. In Afghanistan, the average household has more than 7 members, but due to the devastating impacts of ongoing conflict and Covid-19, 90% of the population are now living in poverty making it impossible to make ends meet. Poverty is a key driver of protection risks, forcing people to take risky decisions which can have negative consequences for themselves or their family members, like irregular migration, child labour or child marriage. IOM Protection works to reduce those risks for undocumented returnees from Iran and Pakistan. 

A sign welcoming new arrivals back to Afghanistan at the Herat transit center. Herat, March 2021

IOM Afghanistan is supporting undocumented returnees to access vital Protection services thanks to EU Humanitarian Aid.