Afghanistan 2014: A Crisis of Internal Displacement

Editor’s Note: Khalid Koser recently returned from a field visit to Afghanistan and Pakistan, assessing the potential displacement implications of the withdrawal of the majority of International Security Assistance Force troops from Afghanistan at the end of 2014. This is the third in a three part series on the changes that may be expected over the next year in Afghanistan.

The first posting in this three-part series suggested that the impacts on its citizens of the security, political and economic transitions in Afghanistan in 2014 have not yet received enough attention; and the second narrowed the focus specifically to displacement scenarios. Within those scenarios, there is a general consensus that the most likely and most significant displacement outcome of the transitions in Afghanistan in 2014 will be more displacement within the country.

Three specific drivers for an increase in internal displacement as a result of the transitions in Afghanistan have been identified. First, it has been suggested that if provincial cities were to ‘fall’ to insurgents, this would push out large numbers of people seen as loyal to the government, specific political parties and the Afghan National Security Forces. A second risk factor is the rise of both old and new warlords and their militias. Internal turf battles, like those that plagued the country in the 1990s pre-Taliban era, would probably cause local displacement including in urban areas. Third, it has been predicted that if the current skirmishes that are common especially in the south and east of the country turn into more systematic armed clashes, then significant localized internal displacement would occur. In addition, a reduction in livelihoods and the capacity to cope with seasonal climatic events, may spur further displacement for a significant number of people affected by the expected economic deterioration over the next year.

Equally, three reasons have been suggested why such triggers are more likely to result in internal rather than cross-border displacement. First, there will be a reluctance to move too far from their homes, especially for the millions of returned refugees who have invested in a new life at home. Second, the possibility and inclination to move to either Iran or Pakistan may decrease over the coming years: it has been predicted that Iran would close its official border crossings quickly should significant new refugee flows from Afghanistan emerge next year. There are growing restrictions on refugees already present in both countries and deteriorating employment prospects. Third, for a significant proportion of Afghans, internal displacement has become a fairly common survival strategy, manifest particularly by short-term and short-distance moves to escape sporadic localized violence or on a seasonal basis by climatic effects.

While people are not expected to cross the borders in large numbers, there are at the same time concerns that insecurity may. A scenario currently being discussed in Pakistan, for example, is that rising conflict in eastern border areas of Afghanistan may spill across the border, and in particular affect the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Deteriorating security and law and order there may in turn lead to people leaving the province, thus increasing the internally displaced persons (IDP) population within Pakistan.

Any new internal displacement in Afghanistan would exacerbate an already fairly serious internal displacement crisis in Afghanistan. As of March 31, 2013, a total of 534,006 people were recorded by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) as internally displaced by conflict in Afghanistan. These statistics combine conflict-induced and other displacements, as well as both relatively new and protracted caseloads. Internal displacement has already been rising over the past year, and is projected to continue to increase over at least the next 12 months. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, over 100,000 people were displaced by conflict in Afghanistan in 2012 and a further 32,000 by natural disasters. In the first six months of 2013 an additional 60,000 people were displaced internally, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Conditions for many IDPs are already described as tenuous. They are reported to face a wide range of physical threats and restrictions to their freedom of movement. They often lack access to sufficient food and water, adequate housing, security of tenure and employment. National and international responses to internal displacement in Afghanistan to date have been described as inadequate, and clearly would be stretched by further internal displacement over the coming years.

A particular aspect of internal displacement attracting attention in Afghanistan is its urban manifestation, particularly in Kabul. Increasing numbers of IDPs are moving to cities and towns, where they are co-settling with non-displaced urban poor, poor rural-urban internal migrants, and returning refugees. In Kabul there are 55 such informal settlements, housing about 31,000 individuals, and conditions are dire – especially with respect to shelter, access to water, hygiene and sanitation. While it is suggested that these urban IDPs may face discrimination and are even more deprived and marginalized than those among whom they are living, in reality it is difficult to draw distinctions.

A crucial first step in responding to the current internal displacement crisis in Afghanistan, and preparing for the prospect of more displacement, is to finalize the national IDP policy. During a working visit in July 2012 the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of IDPs, Chaloka Beyani, signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the government to support this process. A final draft has now been prepared, and is scheduled to be submitted to parliament shortly. While Afghanistan will be a welcome addition to the growing list of countries that have developed national laws and policies on IDPs, experience in many others is that implementation remains a challenge. The obstacles that Afghanistan will likely face in the implementation of this policy include be corruption, inadequately-trained staff, insufficient resources for implementation, absence of a specific governmental focal point for implementation, a lack of monitoring and evaluation, and poor take-up in provinces away from Kabul. In all these areas international support will be required if the national policy is to be effective.

While protecting and assisting IDPs remains primarily a national responsibility, there are other ways that the international community can support the process. One is to adopt a more innovative response to urban IDPs, who might more effectively be assisted as part of wider UN efforts within Afghanistan to deal with the challenges of urbanization and the urban poor. Similarly, there may be scope for partnerships outside the UN system, and in particular between UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration and with NGO partners, to try to deal comprehensively with the increasing overlap between displacement and other migration flows in Afghanistan through an approach that focuses on vulnerable mobile people.