Afghanistan faces one of the world's worst internal displacement crises, the result of a number of factors including protracted conflict, insecurity and disasters. 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 complicate the situation even further. In 2017, there were a total of 474,000 new displacements due to conflict, bringing the total number of people living in displacement at the end of 2017 to 1,286,000.
The first six months of 2018 continued to see new displacements due to conflict, with preliminary estimates pointing to at least 168,000 new displacements from January to June. The situation was complicated further by ongoing drought, which led to as many as 81,000 new displacements during the first six months of the year. For more information see the Mid-Year Figures.
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, but 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.
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.
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.
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 continued to exact a heavy toll in 2017, and IDPs suffer significantly higher mortality rates than the general population because they live in precarious conditions. Many risk being caught in the crossfire, particularly when fleeing violence, and they remain at high risk of attack and abduction despite their displacement.
About 900,000 IDPs currently live in informal settlements, which tend to lack adequate water and sanitation facilities. Those living in rented facilities risk eviction if they are unable to pay their rent. The priority needs of IDPs, more than half of whom are children, include protection, shelter and food security. More than 87 per cent of IDPs surveyed in 2017 who had been displaced by conflict were found to be severely food insecure. Children are vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, interrupted education and child labour. Female IDPs also face high protection concerns and the risk of early and forced marriage.
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 stock figure estimates for 2017 come from a range of sources, including REACH assessments of informal settlements and individual registrations and de-registrations by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) .
Our new displacement data comes from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which is mandated to provide support for IDPs during the first six months of their displacement. OCHA cautions, however, that many people registering as IDPs may not meet the criteria for being defined as such, meaning its figures may be overestimates.
|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.