The government introduced a plan to distribute land to refugees and IDPs in 2005 by the Presidential Decree 104. However, a report of Afghanistan’s leading anti-corruption watchdog, the Independent Joint Anti-Corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee (MEC), described it as a highly corrupt and ineffective government scheme.
MEC’s vulnerability to corruption assessment on land distribution for returnees and IDPs, released in October 2013, described widespread administrative corruption, bribery, forgery, nepotism, embezzlement and poor customer service in the ministry.
The MEC report found that senior officials in the ministry were incompetent, the internal control mechanisms were inadequate, and the land distribution process corrupted, informal and chaotic.
The process was so cumbersome that during the second step of the process (of total 63 administrative steps) the minister himself needed to review each individual application to refer them to the concerned directorate. The chief of staff, heads of different departments, heads of units in the districts, provincial directors of refugees’ affairs and so on, all also needed to confirm, sign off or stamp the application.
Moreover, the 2013 MEC assessment indicated that, due to a sloppy and unnecessarily long procedure, the lack of a central database and widespread corrupted practices, in more than 3,500 cases in Kabul province the same plot of land had been distributed to more than one applicant.
The Afghan Parliament (Wolesi Jirga) summoned the minister for Refugees and Repatriation, Jamaher Anwary, on 9 November 2013 for an interpellation session and questioned him over the over allegations of graft, including embezzlement of funds, failure to clear the ministry’s power bills, anomalies in recruitment and the ministry’s overall failure to address the plight of refugees. He, however, survived the vote of no confidence.
By the end of Anwary’s tenure, in December 2014, according to the UNHCR database, the ministry had allotted only 57,500 plots of land (out of a total of 266,000 applications). Of this number, only 39,000 beneficiaries had actually received their title deeds, while the actual occupancy was recorded at just over 21,000 plots. To put these figures in context, based on a rough estimate by UNHCR, there may be more than two million landless returnees in Afghanistan eligible for the scheme.
According to a 2015 UNAMA report on land grabbing, government officials often distributed land to those who were not eligible, either for personal gain or under pressure of threats. For example, a governor (from a province not named by UNAMA) had “sold land allocated for IDPs and returnees for personal profit,” while in another place “the Decree 104 commission ha[d] not convened in over four years, ostensibly because no state land ha[d] been made available for allocation, as a result of state land grabbing.” Often, land distribution priorities appeared biased, favouring other groups who are also eligible to receive land, such as government employees. In Herat, for example, the municipal land commission distributed 14,000 parcels of land to government officials and only 850 parcels to returnees and IDPs.
As a result of these practices, aid funds for the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation were on hold for most of 2015. This was also one of SIGAR’s recommendations to the US government in its August 2015 report, because of the widespread corruption in the ministry.
When the current refugee minister Sayed Hussain Alemi Balkhi took over in January 2015, he faced a mammoth task. He not only had to deal with a notoriously corrupt ministry, but his appointment also coincided with a growing mass exodus of Afghans to Europe and pressure from European countries to ‘take back’ those who failed to get asylum. There was also the ongoing increase in IDPs due to the intensified conflict.
On 19 May 2015, the new minister introduced what MEC, in its latest Six-month Progress Report, described as a simplified procedure for land distribution. According to MEC’s monitoring and evaluation unit, 1,534 plots have since been distributed based on the new procedure. The ministry has also established a legal committee to deal with the 3,500 doubly/triply distributed plots in Kabul province.
Both CEO Abdullah Abdullah and President Ghani promised in their election campaigns to facilitate the return of refugees still living abroad. There is a sense that the government is serious about cleaning up the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation. The spotlight is now on the ministry to see if it can rescue its damaged reputation and start helping those it is supposed to serve.