As COVID-19 spreads across Afghanistan, concerns are rising that it will disproportionately impact the most vulnerable among the Afghan people, including returnees. Across the country, returnees are among the high-risk groups afflicted by the present COVID-19 crisis as they have limited access to basic services, especially healthcare, and also face loss of income and livelihoods because of the countrywide lockdown.  

Under the European Union-funded Reintegration and Development Assistance in Afghanistan (RADA) project, with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has been supporting returnees like Ghulam Hassan (42) to support their sustainable reintegration within their communities of return.

As a direct consequence of the COVID-19 lockdowns, such sustainable businesses providing livelihoods and incomes for returnees and supported through reintergration programmes, are now under considerable risk.

Hassan spent a couple of years in Utrecht, Netherlands, but was unsuccessful in securing asylum and permission to remain. He decided to return to Afghanistan in 2017.

Ghulam Hassan working in his company, Faizy Tailoring Company, in Kabul, before the lockdown. Photo: IOM Afghanistan

IOM Netherlands linked the aspiring entrepreneur with IOM Afghanistan who then supported Hassan to reboot his life back in his home country. He invested his reintegration cash into a Kabul-based business organization, Faizy Tailoring Company, and soon became a partner.

It didn’t take long for his thriving company, working in partnership with IOM, to scale up and create employment opportunities for other returnees coming back from Turkey, Europe and neighbouring Iran and Pakistan.  

Under the leadership of Hassan, Faizy Tailoring Company progressed from a few workers to employing as many as 18 staff members in Kabul in under two years. When the COVID19 pandemic lockdown was put in place, Hassan had been on the verge of expanding his market reach by increasing the manufacturing capacity of the company.

Regrettably all this changed, after Afghanistan imposed a lockdown. “Eighteen people were working for us and making a good living. Because of the lockdown, we have closed the company and we are unable to produce or sell any products,” says Hassan.

Although he is very worried about the future of his company and his staff, Hassan understands the importance of the lockdown to stop the transmission of the virus. Nevertheless, he is very concerned about the negative economic impact it will have on his business and employees.

“So far, I have managed to pay partial salaries to my full-time staff but if the lockdown continues, that will not be possible. I am afraid that the lockdown will push us all down to extreme poverty,” says Hassan.  

Faizy Tailoring Company, with IOM support, has employed 18 staff members over the last two years. However, COVID-induced lockdown has forced the company to shut down, leaving the employees without any source of income. Photo: IOM Afghanistan

Until a month ago, Omid had a stable income, working at Faizy Tailoring Company, but now he remains uncertain about his future livelihood. Photo: IOM Afghanistan

After living in Iran for years, Omid (24) faced many difficulties on his return to Afghanistan including finding a livelihood. Under IOM’s partnership with Faizy Tailoring Company, he was employed by the company in 2017 and received tailoring training. Until recently, Omid had a stable income but now he remains uncertain about his future livelihood.

Mohammad Nasim (28) returned from Pakistan in 2015 and is also in a similar position. He struggled to find a stable source of income and supported his family doing various odd jobs. IOM introduced Nasim to Faizy Tailoring Company and soon he became a fulltime staff at the company mostly involved in the production. The company had to close down because of the COVID-19 induced lockdown last month, leaving Nasim and his coworkers without any employment.

The closure of Faizy Tailoring Company because of the COVID-19 induced lockdown last month, has left Nasim and his coworkers unemployed. Photo: IOM Afghanistan

Rabia (38), a widow and mother to four young children, returned from Quetta, Pakistan a few years ago and settled in Kandahar. She struggled to find a stable source of income for years and supported her family by working various odd jobs. She was recently employed by Nazia Women’s Clothing Company in Kandahar that partners with IOM under the RADA project. The tailoring skills Rabia was learning meant that she could at last provide her family with a steady income. However, when she heard about the lockdown in Afghanistan, her first worry was how her family would survive without a source of income and therefore without adequate food stocks to last a few months. 

“I had recently found employment and was learning tailoring at my job. The lockdown forced the company to close down and I am again left with no source of income. It is difficult to survive and provide for my four children. I don’t have enough food to feed them,” says Rabia.

Rabia (in blue) working at Nazia Women’s Clothing Company in Kandahar. Photo: IOM Afghanistan

Afghans have lived through decades of war, but now they are up against an unprecedented challenge that is global in its spread and impact.

Ordinary Afghans, like many other poor people around the world, are faced with the dual burden of COVID-19 on one hand, and on the other, the ensuing economic instability brought about by the lockdown. 

In its efforts to respond to the coronavirus crisis, IOM is actively supporting the Afghan Ministry of Public Health and WHO in addressing preparedness and emergency coordination through its Migration Health Unit in Afghanistan.