Afghanistan faces one of the world’s most acute internal displacement crises; the result of several factors, including protracted conflict, ongoing insecurity and natural hazards. Displacement has become a familiar survival strategy for many Afghans and, in some cases, an inevitable part of life for two generations. The situation is further complicated by widespread unemployment, poverty, landlessness and a lack of basic services. Drought, floods, earthquakes, storms and avalanches also cause displacement throughout the country on a yearly basis.
As many as 372,000 new displacements associated with conflict and violence were recorded in 32 of 34 provinces in 2018. Displacement was triggered by fighting between the Taliban and the government but also by battles involving ISIS and other non-state armed groups. By the end of the year, 2.6 million people were living in displacement as a result of the four-decade long conflict in Afghanistan. Disasters led to 435,000 new displacements in 2018, 372,000 of which were triggered by drought affecting the western provinces of Heart, Badghis and Ghor.
Average expected number of displacements per year – for sudden-onset hazards:
What causes displacement?
The history of displacement associated with conflict in Afghanistan goes back to the late 1970s. War between the Soviet-backed government and mujahideen fighters, and the subsequent Soviet occupation in 1979 triggered large-scale internal displacement and refugee flows. The fall of the communist government in 1992, ensuing ethnic conflict between mujahideen factions and the rise of the Taliban in the late 1990s displaced millions more.
In response to the 11 September 2001 attacks in the US by members of the Taliban-backed al-Qaeda network, NATO and US forces launched parallel military interventions in Afghanistan. Conflict between the US-backed Northern Alliance and the Taliban and its supporters escalated, as did inter-ethnic violence, fuelling further years of large-scale internal displacement.
Conflict has continued to destabilise Afghan society and cause civilian casualties and mass displacement in recent years. The number of new displacements associated with conflict rose steadily between 2009 and 2016, 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. We estimate that there were 652,000 new displacements in 2016 and 474,000 in 2017. In 2018, there were 372,000 new displacements, a decrease on previous years, despite historically high levels of violence. Our confidence in the accuracy of the figures is limited because of access constraints and problems in verifying caseloads of displaced people.
Disasters brought on by natural hazards affect around 250,000 people a year, causing many to flee their homes, including some already displaced by conflict and violence. Mountain ranges cover all but the north-central and south-western regions of the country, which consist of plains and desert. Seasonal rainfall, floods and 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 areas and often trigger large landslides.
In 2018, Afghanistan was affected by widespread displacement linked to drought. Years of successive dry spells and below average rainfall contributed to over 372,000 new displacements in 20 provinces, as people’s livelihoods became unviable and their living conditions untenable. Other large-scale events included widespread flooding in May, which led to 46,000 new displacements, and an earthquake which caused 7,600 new displacements in Badakhshan and Takhar.
The high levels of poverty and illiteracy, lack of income-generating opportunities, chronic health problems and poor infrastructure prevalent across Afghanistan make people living in areas exposed to such hazards particularly vulnerable. The growing frequency and intensity of disasters and insufficient investment in risk reduction strategies render them even more so.
Where and how do people move?
Most Afghan provinces have been affected by displacement associated with conflict. After an escalation in violence across the north and north-east in 2015, all 34 provinces were hosting IDPs by 2016, and 31 had recorded incidents of displacement. The trend persisted in 2017 as fighting continued in much of the country, and the UN reclassified Afghanistan from a post-conflict country to one in active conflict.
In 2018, the evolution of the conflict to a war of attrition against government forces, where non-state armed actors attack checkpoints and outposts rather than try to seize and hold large population centres, has led to a change in patterns of displacement. Therefore, despite the greater level of violence, displacement in 2018 was characterized by relatively small-scale and temporal movements. Examples of larger movements in 2018 were the Taliban assault on Ghazni city in August, generating as many 36,000 displacements and armed conflict between Hazara militias and Taliban fighters in Malestan and Jaghuri districts in Ghazni, generating as many as 6,400 displacements.
People displaced by conflict and violence tend to try to 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 from rural to urban areas tend to do so because they believe cities are relatively safer and provide better access to infrastructure, services and livelihoods.
Some IDPs flee violence for a relatively short time, but many are displaced for longer periods because the deteriorating security situation has made it ever more difficult for people to return home. A survey of more than 1,000 displaced households found as far back as 2012 that 11 per cent had been displaced for more than a decade, and nearly 50 per cent had been displaced for at least two years. IDPs living in protracted displacement struggle to meet their families’ food needs and find employment just as much as those displaced more recently.
The number of Afghans returning from Iran and Pakistan, whether forced, spontaneous or assisted, has increased dramatically in recent years. More than a million documented and undocumented Afghans returned in 2016, and more than 610,000 in 2017, and many have gone back to a life of internal displacement, swelling the number of the country’s IDPs.
In 2018, the number of returns from Pakistan was at an all-time low, while the number returning from Iran reached an all-time high, with over 750,000 returnees recorded from Iran. With further decline of the Iranian economy projected for 2019, the return rate is set to continue and will have a negative effect on the Afghan economy with the loss of remittances and the return of mostly young, unemployed men from Iran.
The UN humanitarian country team for Afghanistan has said this will generate considerable needs. Undocumented and involuntary returnees and those unable to return to their areas of origin are at particular risk. They tend not to be monitored or assisted because they fall off humanitarian agencies’ radar soon after returning.
What is life like for IDPs and communities hosting them?
Afghanistan’s severe and escalating conflict along with drought exacted a heavy toll on the population in 2018. The sudden influx of drought-induced IDPs on the outskirts of Hirat City and Qala-e-Naw provincial capitals has led to the emergence of 19 vast and sprawling informal settlements. Conditions in these settlements remain dire and pose health and protection risks to their inhabitants. IDP settlement on government or privately-owned lands heightens the risk of secondary displacement through evictions.
In the western regions shelter needs are high, particularly among those displaced by drought, with about 51 per cent living in makeshift shelters and 15 per cent living in the open air. The majority of families are settled on private land, risking possible eviction. Inadequate shelter has also exposed people to increased risk of displacement due to sudden-onset disasters, such as floods and avalanches.
About 58 per cent of the drought-displaced population are children under the age of 18 who face particular protection concerns and are vulnerable to interrupted education, child labour and early marriages.
Where does data on displacement come from and what are the main challenges?
The data landscape in Afghanistan is one of the world’s most challenging. There are no formal displacement camps, the security situation is volatile, IDPs are highly mobile, political tensions are high and humanitarian space is shrinking, all of which makes data collection and analysis a daunting exercise.
IDPs live in informal settlements and camp-like settings, with family and friends or in rented accommodation, and their insecure livelihoods and tensions with host communities mean they often change their living arrangements. Returning refugees are also difficult to track and may experience a range of different living conditions once back in Afghanistan, which makes their status as IDPs or otherwise difficult to determine.
Many humanitarian organisations have responded to the deteriorating security situation by moving out of remote areas in active conflict and basing their activities in regional hubs, away from where many IDPs live. The mix of organisations present in different regions has changed over time, which also means that diverse data collection methodologies have been used, making year-on-year comparisons difficult.
Efforts are nevertheless being made to paint a comprehensive picture of the internal displacement situation in Afghanistan. We have been liaising with UN agencies and other humanitarian organisations in the field to produce the best estimates possible in the circumstances.
Our new displacement data comes from OCHA, which is mandated to provide support for IDPs during the first six months of their displacement. Estimates for the total number of IDPs (the displacement “stock figure”) in 2018 came from the Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM) service of IOM, which increased its surveying coverage in the country in 2018. This differs from our estimate on the total number of IDPs for 2017, which came from a range of sources, including REACH assessments of informal settlements and individual registrations and de-registrations by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
IDMC’s estimate of the total number of IDPs in Afghanistan is based on an analysis of data obtained from IOM which was collected from key informants between December 2017 and December 2018.
IDMC’s estimate of the number of new displacements in 2018 is mainly based on the number of newly displaced IDPs registered by OCHA’s displacement tracking system and whose displacement has been verified. It also accounts for people displaced as a result of arbitrary evictions reported by OCHA, and temporary unregistered displacements reported by IOM’s humanitarian assistance programme. Given that many short-term displacements are not verified by humanitarian agencies, IDMC’s reported number of new displacements is likely to be an underestimate.