Afghanistan has one of the most acute internal displacement crises globally, arising from a number of factors including protracted conflict and disasters’. Displacement has become a familiar survival strategy and in some cases even an inevitable part of life for two generations of Afghans faced with continuous violence, insecurity and recurrent disasters. Widespread unemployment, poverty, landlessness and a lack of basic services further complicate the situation.
Afghanistan’s history of displacement driven by conflict goes back to the late 1970s. War between the Soviet-backed government and mujahedeen fighters, and the subsequent Soviet occupation in 1979 triggered large-scale internal displacement and refugee flows. The fall of the communist government in 1992, followed by civil war between mujahideen factions along ethnic lines, followed by the rise of the Taliban in the late 1990s, displaced millions more.
In response to the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States by members of the Taliban-backed al-Qaeda network, NATO established the International Security Assistance Force and intervened militarily in Afghanistan. US forces launched their own parallel intervention. Conflict between the US-backed Northern Alliance and the Taliban and its supporters continued, as did inter-ethnic violence. This fuelled years of large-scale internal displacement.
Conflict in Afghanistan has continued to destabilise society and cause civilian casualties and mass displacement in recent years. The number of people internally displaced by conflict has been on the rise since 2009, driven by an increase in violence by non-state armed groups and counterinsurgency operations by national and, to a lesser extent, the remaining international security forces. IDMC estimates that conflict and violence displaced some 652,000 people in 2016 and 474,000 in 2017. However we have limited confidence in the accuracy of this figure due to access constraints and problems with verifying caseloads of displaced populations.
Afghanistan’s topography is dominated by mountain ranges that cover all but the north-central and south-western regions of the country, which consist of plains and desert. Seasonal rainfall, floods and the resulting landslides regularly affect the northern and north-eastern regions, destroying homes and infrastructure.
The country is also exposed to drought, earthquakes, extreme temperatures, avalanches and storms. Earthquakes are frequent in northern parts of the country and often trigger large landslides. The high levels of poverty and illiteracy, lack of income-generating opportunities, chronic health problems and poor infrastructure prevalent in the country make people living in areas exposed to these environmental hazards particularly vulnerable. The rising frequency of disasters and insufficient investment in disaster risk reduction strategies render already vulnerable households even more so.
Most Afghan provinces have been affected by conflict-induced displacement. By 2016, after an intensification of violence across the north and north-east in 2015, all 34 provinces were hosting IDPs and 31 had recorded incidents of displacement. In 2017, this trend persisted as fighting raged in much of the country, with the UN re-inserting Afghanistan in its list of active conflicts.
People displaced by conflict and violence tend to try and stay as close as possible to their homes, moving from rural areas to the provincial capital or a neighbouring province. Many seek shelter with host communities or, in the case of those who flee to urban areas, in informal or unplanned settlements. Those who flee to the cities from rural areas do so because they believe cities are relatively safe and provide better access to infrastructure, services and livelihoods.
Some IDPs flee violence for a relatively short time, but many others are displaced for longer periods. Internal displacement is becoming more protracted, as the deteriorating security situation has made it ever more difficult for people to return home. As early as 2012, a survey of more than 1,000 displaced households found that 11 per cent had been displaced for over a decade, while nearly 50 per cent had been displaced since 2009. IDPs living in protracted displacement struggle to meet their families’ food needs and find employment just as much as those displaced more recently.
Further amplifying the displacement crisis, the forced or spontaneous return of Afghans from Iran and Pakistan has increased dramatically in recent years. Over one million documented and undocumented Afghans returned from Iran and Pakistan in 2016, and over 610,000 returned from those countries in 2017.
These large-scale returns, whether forced, spontaneous or assisted, have prompted UN agencies and NGOs to warn that significant secondary displacement is likely. The UN humanitarian country team for Afghanistan has said that this will generate considerable needs. Undocumented and involuntary returnees and those unable to return to their areas of origin are at particular risk because they tend not to be monitored or assisted, falling off the humanitarian agencies’ radar soon after returning. As such, they are likely to find themselves in a situation of internal displacement after returning to Afghanistan.
The severity and spread of the ongoing conflict continued to exact a heavy toll on Afghanistan in 2017.IDPs suffer significantly higher mortality rates than the general population, as they live in precarious conditions, and remain at high risk of physical attacks and abduction, and of being caught in crossfire, particularly when fleeing violence.
About 900,000 IDPs currently live in informal settlements characterised by a lack of adequate water and sanitation facilities. In addition, IDPs living in rented facilities risk being evicted if they cannot pay the rent. The priority needs of IDPs, over half of whom are children, include protection, shelter and food security. For example, needs assessments carried out in 2017 found that 87 per cent of conflict IDPs are severely food insecure. Children are vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, interrupted school attendance and child labour. Female IDPs also face high protection concerns and the risk of early and forced marriage.
Continuous armed conflict, insecurity, human rights violations and recurrent disasters mean that flight and mobility have been familiar coping strategies for many Afghans for almost four decades.
Large numbers of people in Afghanistan have experienced some form of displacement in their lives. Afghanistan has been in a state of protracted conflict for more than 35 years, hampering interventions to reduce poverty, limiting development and straining the social fabric and coping mechanisms.
The country’s history of displacement driven by conflict goes back to the late 1970s. During the war between its Soviet-backed government and mujahideen opposition fighters, and during the subsequent Soviet invasion and occupation, up to five million people were forced to flee the country.
After the fall of the communist government in 1992, civil war between mujahideen factions divided along ethnic lines spread throughout Afghanistan, and by 2001 the war had displaced 400,000 people into camps near Jalalabad, Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat. The Taliban rose to power in 1996, and the intense conflict between the Taliban’s mainly Pashtun forces and mujahideen fighters from Tajik, Uzbek and other ethnic groups displaced an additional million people. In response to the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States, perpetrated by members of the Taliban-backed al-Qaeda network, NATO established the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and intervened militarily in Afghanistan.
US forces launched their own parallel intervention. Conflict between the US-backed Northern Alliance and the Taliban and its supporters continued, as did inter-ethnic violence, and this combination of factors culminated in years of large-scale internal displacement. Conflict in Afghanistan continues to destabilise society, cause civilian casualties and result in large-scale displacement. The number of people internally displaced by conflict has been on the rise since 2009, driven by an increase in violence by non-state armed groups (NSAGs) and counterinsurgency operations by national and, to a lesser extent, the remaining international security forces.
Conflict and violence displaced an estimated 652,000 people in 2016, resulting in a 66 per cent increase in displacement related to conflict. Disasters brought on by natural hazards have also caused people to flee their homes, in some cases affecting people already displaced by conflict and violence. Disasters often worsen the effects of conflict, and it is sometimes a combination of both factors that forces people to flee. Afghanistan’s topography is dominated by mountain ranges that cover all but the north-central and south-western regions of the country, which consist of plains and desert. Seasonal rainfall, floods and the resulting landslides regularly affect the northern and north-eastern regions, destroying homes and infrastructure and driving displacement.
The country is also exposed to drought, earthquakes, extreme temperatures, avalanches and storms. Earthquakes are frequent in the northern parts of the country and often trigger large landslides. Flooding and mudslides are also common, particularly during spring, and extreme winter conditions and avalanches are common in the mountainous areas of Afghanistan, which make up approximately 63 per cent of the country.
The high levels of poverty and illiteracy, lack of income-generating opportunities, chronic health problems and poor infrastructure prevalent in the country have resulted in high vulnerability among people living in areas exposed to those hazards.
Disasters affect an average of 200,000 people a year in Afghanistan. Droughts from lack of rain, or floods and mudslides due to melting snow, directly influence the income and economic stability of the country’s households. Their vulnerability has increased because of the frequency of disasters and insufficient investment in disaster risk reduction strategies.
|Displacement type||Return (Flow)||IDPs (Stock)||New Displacement (Flow)|
Percentage of population
Percentage of population
|Geographical disaggregation||Subnational - admin 1||Subnational - admin 1||Subnational - admin 1|
|Geographical coverage||Partial coverage||Partial coverage||Partial coverage|
|Frequency of reporting||Every month||Other||More than once a month|
|Disaggregation on sex||No||No||No|
|Disaggregation on age||No||No||No|
|Data triangulation||No Triangulation||Some local triangulation||No Triangulation|
|Data on settlement elsewhere||No||Partial||No|
|Data on returns||No||Partial||No|
|Data on local integration||No||No||No|
|Data on deaths||No||No||No|
|Data on births||No||No||No|
IDMC’s estimates are based on data collected by REACH/OCHA, UNHCR and IOM. It includes internally displaced people who happened to become displaced while living in the country, and other groups who happened to become displaced upon their return to Afghanistan from abroad. Despite significant humanitarian access challenges, we strived to establish the most accurate picture of the situation on the ground as possible with the help of our partners in country. These estimates should be considered as underestimates.