Afghanistan faces one of the world’s most acute internal displacement crises as it suffers protracted conflict, ongoing insecurity and natural hazards, such as droughts, floods, storms and earthquakes. 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.
As many as 461,000 new displacements associated with conflict and violence were recorded in 32 of 34 provinces in 2019. They were triggered by fighting and attacks involving the Taliban, government forces, ISIS ￼and other non-state armed groups. Around three million people were living in displacement at the end of the year as a result of four decades of conflict. Of 117,000 new disaster displacements recorded in 2019, 111,000 were triggered by flooding in the western provinces of Badghis, Farah, Ghor, Helmand, Herat and Kandahar.
Average expected number of displacements per year – for sudden-onset hazards:
The history of conflict displacement 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 conflict displacements rose steadily between 2009 and 2016, driven by an increase in violence by non-state armed groups and counterinsurgency operations by the Afghan army and, to a lesser extent, the remaining international security forces. We estimate that there were 652,000 new displacements in 2016, 474,000 in 2017 and 372,000 in 2018. Fighting between the army and the Taliban escalated in 2019 and ISIS attacks continued, triggering a rise in the number of new displacements to around 461,000. Most took place in the east, north and north-east of the country. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) recorded the highest number of civilian casualties in the third quarter of the year since it began systematic documentation in 2009.
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 rains, floods and landslides regularly affect the northern and north-eastern regions, destroying homes and infrastructure. The country is also exposed to drought, extreme temperatures, avalanches and storms. Earthquakes are frequent in northern areas and often trigger large landslides.
Floods triggered around 111,000 new displacements in 2019, the majority in March. Badghis, Farah, Helmand, Herat and Kandahar provinces were worst affected. The floodwaters also hampered relief operations. Afghanistan experienced its worst drought in decades in 2018, which triggered more than 371,000 displacements. Its impacts continued in 2019 as poor harvests increased food insecurity across the country, leaving many IDPs in dire conditions of poverty and malnutrition. A further 4,700 new drought displacements were also recorded. A lack of services, markets and social protection has forced many people to move from rural to urban areas, fuelling the rapid expansion of informal settlements in the country’s main cities. Around 1.2 million people were thought to be living in displacement at the end of the year as a result of disasters.
High levels of poverty and illiteracy, a lack of income-generating opportunities, chronic health problems and poor infrastructure across Afghanistan make people living in areas exposed to natural hazards particularly vulnerable. The growing frequency and intensity of disasters and insufficient investment in risk reduction strategies render them even more so.
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. 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.
Afghanistan’s severe and escalating conflict, the drought in 2018 and flooding in 2019 have exacted a heavy toll on the population. The sudden influx of IDPs fleeing drought to the outskirts of Herat and Qala-e-Naw, the capitals of Herat and Badghis provinces, has led to the emergence of 19 sprawling informal settlements. Conditions there are dire and pose health and protection risks to their inhabitants. IDPs who settle on government or private land are also at heightened risk of eviction and secondary displacement.
Shelter needs are particularly acute in western areas of the country, where around 51 per cent of people displaced by drought live in makeshift shelters and 15 per cent in the open air. The majority of families have settled on private land, putting them at risk of eviction. Inadequate shelter also makes people more vulnerable to the impacts of sudden-onset disasters such as floods and avalanches, and heightens their risk of secondary displacement. About 58 per cent of the people displaced by drought are under 18, and face particular protection concerns. These include interrupted education, child labour and early marriage.
Land rights are an important issue in Afghanistan. Seventy-five per cent of cross-border returnees report difficulties in accessing land, and many opt instead to establish themselves in informal settlements, the likes of which make up more than two-thirds of the housing in main cities, including Kabul. Sixty-five per cent of displaced people in Afghanistan do not live in permanent housing, and their pursuit of durable solutions is set back each time conflict flares or floods or winter storms strike. IDPs who do not have documents to prove their land rights are also at risk of eviction.
The government’s decision to issue a million “occupancy certificates” to residents of informal urban settlements is a positive development in this sense. The certificates will protect holders from eviction for five years, and will be in the name of both wife and husband. The government also said in 2019 that it intended to prioritise housing for returnees and female-headed households, and would make at least 200,000 flats and plots of land available in 2020. It is vital that local integration and reintegration efforts are strengthened and that such programming is adapted to urban situations.
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 data on new displacements in 2019 comes from OCHA, as it has done in previous years. Our estimate of the total number of IDPs at the end of 2019 is from IOM’s displacement tracking matrix (DTM). This differs from our previous estimates, 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).
Afghanistan adopted a national policy on IDPs in 2014. It addresses displacement triggered by both conflict and disasters and includes provisions for durable solutions and prevention. The policy also outlines the roles and responsibilities of various ministries and departments in implementing the policy, with the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation (MoRR) as the institutional focal point.
The country also adopted the policy framework for returnees and IDPs in 2017, which outlines short, medium and long-term measures to ensure their reintegration into society.
These policy developments are the first of their kind in Asia and a significant step in the right direction, but implementation is lagging behind. The provincial Directorates of Refugees and Repatriation (DoRRs), which are responsible for putting the policy into practice, have had to switch their focus from durable solutions planning back to meeting basic humanitarian needs as a result of the escalating conflict.
MoRR works with OCHA and IOM’s DTM to collect data on internal displacement. Data on conflict is disaggregated by location, gender and age, but on disasters only by location. Figures are updated at least annually.