What I observed when I was a refugee, and when I was conducting research on migration

by Wali Mohammad Kandiwal

Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons are not only forced to flee, but also to not say the truth

I do not know the exact year, but in 1980s my family moved from Sheirzad district of Nangahar province of Afghanistan to Kurram Agency-FATA of Pakistan and settled there in a camp which was newly established.

Over that decade, millions of Afghans left the country because of the conflict which had erupted as a result of the invasion of the Soviet Union and the internal conflict between the supporters of the two extreme ideologies.[1] Eventually, the Afghan government and its foreign supporter had started searching operations and bombardment targeting their so-called enemies everywhere especially in the rural areas. Everyone felt that they were not safe anymore. Therefore, our elders decided to leave our homeland.

In order to get to Pakistan, we had to pass the mountains of Spin Ghar (White Mountain), located between Afghanistan and Kurram Agency. Some people, who were not extremely poor, had rented donkeys or mules for their children and elderly. However, young males and females had no choice but to walk. It was not easy to walk one and a half or even two days in the mountains in narrow ways for the first time, but this was the only option as the Afghan government did not allow any families to leave Afghanistan at that time.

The camp which we lived in for several years was located on the eastern part of the Sadda Bazaar of Kurram Agency. There were four major tribes, namely Masuzi, Alisherzai, Bangash, and Fari, living in the surrounded areas. Turi (Shiites) left Sadda after they fought with Sunni, but they still have lands and markets in Sadaa Bazaar. Our camp was located in a Dashta (desert), where there was nothing, not even clean drinking water. We would drink the rainwater from a pond which had small red worms in it. Then we started to bring water from a village of the host community located more than one kilometre away from the camp.

Life in the refugee camp was not easy, and we were faced with several challenges because we had left Afghanistan without taking anything with us, except the clothes we had worn. In order to get continuous assistance, we had to go through a system to obtain a Ration Pass. However, the assistance package of the Ration Pass could not cover all the needs of the refugees. As a result, the refugees were trying to get more of the same stuff, and they would sell them for their other needs. This could be made possible in two ways: first, to have more than one Ration Pass, and second, to have more people registered under one Ration Pass. To achieve the first method, people started to split one family into two or three families to get multiple Ration Passes. Likewise, to achieve the second method, they were claiming more children than they actually had, because a family that has more children would receive more material assistance.

In either of the above situations, a family needed more children to prove their claims. I still remember when I was a child, I was put into three different tents within a day to complete the number of the children that the family had claimed. These tents belonged to our relatives. That day, a delegation of the commissioners came to our camp and stood in front of each tent, counting the families and then the members of each family to check whether they have the same number of family members they had claimed in their Ration Passes. We, the children, would sit in front of one tent for counting, went out from the back side of the tent after counting, and run to another tent and sat there before the delegation arrived. The delegation would look at us and sometimes asked about our relationship, but we were well-trained enough to say what our elders told us to say. As a child, I was happily doing this and I think the rest of the children felt the same, because we thought we are doing something very right and helping our families by getting something. Everyone was trying to give better answers than the others if they were asked by the member of the delegation.

Recently, when I was conducting a research on the IDPs in Kabul, I found more or less the same story.  I was at an informal settlement located on the eastern part of Kabul within the official border of police district eight. This informal settlement has three parts: the first part of the settlement is occupied by the people who claimed that they came from Helmand province because of the ongoing fighting; the second part were occupied by the Jogi or Changari people; and the third part had a mixed population of refugee returnees and IDPs from different parts of the country.

One day, I was sitting in the house of Majbor[2], an internally displaced person. Majbor belongs to the Arab tribe originally from the Baghlan province which is in the north of Afghanistan and a neighboring province of Kunduz, where the Taliban still have a stronghold. He was telling us his story of how and why he left Baghlan. Apart from complaining about his living condition in that informal settlement, Majbor also claimed that he did not receive any assistance neither from the Afghan government nor from the humanitarian organisations. He repeatedly told us that he had been displaced very recently, just 15 days ago. And when I asked whether the house he was living in was his own, he said yes. He added that he and his wife had constructed that house in less than 15 days. It was a mud contracted house with two rooms and surrounding walls, and it was built relatively well. However, to find such a place in an informal settlement in Kabul, and then to build such a house might take months, if not years. I was thinking and asking myself, so why would he say that he displaced very recently or more simply, why he would lie? I understood later that most of the humanitarian organisations have the extra criteria to help those who became IDPs recently, but not the ones who are protracted. Therefore, Majbor might have confused us with those organisations who would be able to help him if he was recently displaced. I have witnessed several times when the IDPs or returnees were not telling the truth, and I was feeling bad each time after hearing that, and sometimes I was not even interested to listen, because I considered that this was just a waste of time.

Surely, none of the refugee or IDPs would like to lie, especially in front of their families and relatives. But they have to do this repeatedly because they are forced to do so. There could be a few reasons which forced them to do so: first, the assistance offered to them may not be what the refugees or IDPs need; or second, the assistance offered to them may not cover all of their needs, and third; the exclusion of refugees or IDPs because of some beneficiary selection criteria may force them to not tell the truth.

One may ask, so what is the solution, or what do the IDPs or refugee need or want the most when they get displaced? Or what should be changed in terms of policy or selection criteria?

It is not possible to come up with a clear answer as to what exactly is the assistance they need because of the complexity of their displacement circumstances. However, a few points can be highlighted in this regard. First, the response should be as contextualised as possible. Second, instead of offering what the organisations can offer, the displaced population should be consulted for their needs, and therefore the humanitarian aids’ assessment questions should be a bit more open.  Third, deeper research needs to be conducted to critically review the beneficiary selection criteria which divide the displaced population into several categories, and shapes the response to them. In addition, research should reflect the voice of these different groups of displaced people to understand their thoughts regarding the response of the humanitarian organisation to displaced population.

Wali Mohammad Kandiwal is an independent research consultant. He has held the following positions:  case study researcher at the Feinstein centre of the Tuft University (Refugees in Towns project); research consultant at the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unite, Kabul Afghanistan; co-author of the paper of Migration Governance in Afghanistan; author of the paper Beyond Kinship and Tribe: New forms of solidarity and interest representation in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan; visiting fellow of the crossroads Asia – Bonn Germany. He holds a Master in Humanitarian Action that he completed in Geneva, Switzerland. Kandiwal can be reached at: kandiwal@gmail.com

The views in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of OxMo.

[1] The supporter of Ekhwanizim ideology which was fuelled from Egypt, and later from Saudi Arab, and the ideology of communism fuelled by the Soviet Union.

[2] This is a pseudonym to protect the person’s identity.