By Matthew Willner-Reid


Any future peace deal in Afghanistan will need to contend with the topic of reintegration; predominantly of former fighters but also potentially of new waves of returning refugees. Millions of Afghans still reside in Pakistan and Iran and their status in those countries remains precarious. A peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban could entice new voluntary returns, but there is also a risk that it could provide cover for neighbouring countries to carry out forced returns of both documented and undocumented Afghans, adding an additional element of instability at a pivotal moment.

With reintegration concerns again rising on donor agendas (last year almost 800,000 Afghans returned or were deported from Iran alone), it is worth looking back at past experiences to learn lessons for the future.

A new article published in Development Policy Review looks back at the first decade and a half of refugee reintegration efforts following the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001. Specifically, the focus of the article is on the growing disconnect during this period between UNHCR’s portrayal of the vulnerability of ‘returnees’ (the organization‘s key target group in Afghanistan) compared to Afghans who have never left the country, and the picture painted by alternative data sources. The evidence suggests that as the relative needs of returnees diminished in comparison to the wider Afghan population, the official pronouncements of UNHCR conversely portrayed these needs as actually increasing as a way to focus donor attention on a topic that would otherwise receive a diminished level of support.

That returnees have, in many cases, adapted well to return to Afghanistan is to UNCHR’s credit, and probably owes much to the reintegration support of UNHCR and IOM. However there is a need to look critically at independent available data sources in assessing reintegration needs and responses – a lesson that will also be relevant for reintegration efforts linked to a future peace deal or further largescale refugee returns.

The law of diminishing returns: UNHCR'S Evolving discourse on returning refugee vulnerability in Afghanistan is published in Development Policy Review, and is available here:

The contents of this paper reflect the views of its author and do not necessarily correspond to those of EIP