By Rina Chandran
PENANG, Malaysia, Oct 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Housing millions of refugees returning to Afghanistan is one of the biggest challenges facing the country as it attempts to meet the basic needs of its people amid the world's longest-running war, a senior government official said.
There are more than 2.6 million registered refugees in the world from Afghanistan, the highest number after Syria, according to the United Nations. In addition, more than two million have been internally displaced by the ongoing conflict.
Hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees are being forced back, or returning of their own accord and struggling to find housing in the cities where they often settle for jobs, said Abdul Baqi Popal, the deputy minister of municipalities.
The government has made affordable housing a priority, with the aim of giving 1 million "Occupancy Certificates" for informal settlers over the next three years, he said.
"The aim is to formalise informal settlements, which are largely on government land. But the government has low financial and management capacity to implement the plan, so the pace is slow," he said on the sidelines of a U.N. urban forum in Penang.
"The certificate will give them the right to occupy the plot without eviction for five years, after which if they meet certain conditions, they can get a land title that gives them full ownership," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
All certificates will be in the name of both the husband and wife - and in the case of widows, the name of the woman, which is unusual in Afghanistan, he said.
Four decades of war have uprooted millions of Afghans from their homes, and sent them to seek refuge elsewhere in the country, or in neighbouring Pakistan and Iran.
About 2.4 million displaced Afghans have returned to Afghanistan since 2014, according to U.N. estimates.
Returnees generally experience a deterioration in livelihood opportunities and wages after returning to Afghanistan, according to a study published this year by the World Bank and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
They also have limited housing options, urban experts said.
Under the City For All programme launched in 2016, the Afghan government has committed to urban planning and land management, including surveying and registering properties in urban areas.
The government is using mapping tools to collect land data and, under a presidential decree issued last year, is registering properties and informal settlements for Occupancy Certificates, said Popal, who oversees 165 municipalities.
More than 70% of homes in urban areas are informal or without a title, said Popal, who has previously worked at UNHCR and UN-Habitat, the settlements agency.
"Giving security of tenure to residents is important for trust building and greater economic stability, because they will pay taxes, and that will boost government revenue," Popal said.
The government has a land bank of about 400,000 hectares, and plans to allocate some of it to build low-cost housing for returning refugees and migrants from rural areas, he said.
Funding could come from aid agencies and the private sector.
"The country has been in war for four decades - the economy is poor, government capacity is limited, our options are few," he said.
"But with housing and tenure security, people can invest in their homes, they can make plans, and try to move forward with their lives," he added.
(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Michael Taylor. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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