Afghanistan 2014: Displacement Scenarios

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 second in a three part series on the changes that may be expected over the next year in Afghanistan. The third posting will focus on the increasing crisis of internal displacement.

The first posting in this series suggested that a combination of security, political and economic transitions in Afghanistan in 2014 may result in both an increase in humanitarian needs in the country, combined with a decrease in the capacity of the international community to deliver protection and assistance. Against this backdrop durable solutions for the millions of Afghans already displaced will remain elusive and more displacement seems likely.

In predicting displacement scenarios, it is important to recognize that the relationship between peace and security on the one hand, and displacement outcomes on the other, is not always ‘linear’ or direct. Rising insecurity in Afghanistan may not necessarily result in more displacement while by the same token increased security may not promote significant returns of those displaced within or outside of the country.

There are many intervening variables. First, transitions such as those envisaged in Afghanistan will impact differentially on different people, in different places and at different times. In this regard particular attention should be paid to the impact on women’s rights of a return of the Taliban to the political process.

Second, individual-level behavior is hard to predict, and there is a significant range of economic, demographic, social, political and physical factors that may affect individuals’ choices about whether to flee or to return. For example, refugees who have returned to Afghanistan over the last decade have often made significant investments in the place where they have settled, and as a result will be reluctant to relocate again. Similarly, the removal of the causes for the flight of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) may not be a sufficient pre-condition for them to return. This is particularly the case in protracted refugee or IDP situations, as the outlook and expectations for many Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan may have changed over time.

A third variable is that to some extent, displacement trajectories will be affected as much by circumstances outside Afghanistan as by internal circumstances. Clearly a hardening attitude towards Afghan refugees on the part of the new Government in Pakistan would have implications for refugees there. It has been suggested that the labor market effects of sanctions in Iran will begin to impact Afghan refugees (and migrants) living in that country and perhaps make Iran a less viable destination for new refugees.

Bearing in mind such reservations, the predictions of international agencies and humanitarian workers in Afghanistan are coalescing around the following displacement scenarios.

First, there is a general consensus that the most likely and significant displacement outcome of the Afghanistan transitions will be more internal displacement, not just in Afghanistan but also potentially through a knock-on effect in Pakistan. The dynamics of internal displacement are covered in more depth in the final posting in this series.

Second, the UN is making contingency plans for between 50,000 to 100,000 refugees to cross the borders into Iran and Pakistan during the course of the next year, with smaller numbers possibly entering Central Asia. More substantial flows are also possible but generally not envisaged – except in the unlikely event of a worst case scenario in Afghanistan. A number of conditions have been identified that might prompt larger movements across the borders: the current intermittent clashes would have to turn into longer-term fighting; the conflict would have to block access to the centre of the country; and governments of neighboring countries would need to be willing to provide asylum to large numbers of new refugees. Should new refugee flows occur, ethnic considerations are likely to be an important factor in determining their direction; the expectation is that a steady trickle would only turn into a larger number should hostilities persist; and most movements are predicted to occur through the official border crossings into Pakistan and Iran, although border crossings to Iran may close quickly.

Third, significant returns to Afghanistan during or after the transition in 2014 are not expected. Around five million people have returned to Afghanistan during the last decade, but repatriation has been declining steadily in recent years, and uncertainty over the future of Afghanistan will reduce still further the likelihood of significant returns. At the same time conditions in Iran or Pakistan are not expected to generate significant ‘push’ factors for refugees already there and they will continue to be tolerated. Similarly, prospects are dim that most Afghans IDPs will return to their homes. At the same time, some refugees and IDPs may seek out pockets of security and risk returning. There are also some indications that countries where significant numbers of Afghan asylum seekers have lodged claims in recent years may view the transition as a political opportunity to return rejected asylum seekers.

A fourth and final category of displaced persons who might be impacted by transitions in Afghanistan is those seeking asylum outside the immediate region. An elite exodus from Afghanistan is already taking place in anticipation of the transition. Individuals associated with, or perceived as supportive of, the Government and international community are at risk of being targeted by anti-Government elements, and a number of International Security Assistance Force troops contributing countries have introduced immigration schemes for their former Afghan staff. There has also been an increase in the number of Afghan refugees and migrants leaving Iran and Pakistan and heading for Europe and Australia rather than risking going home.

Combining these forecasts, the overall expected displacement scenario in Afghanistan over the next year may be characterized as follows:

  • A complex mix of displaced populations including IDPs, refugees, asylum seekers, returning refugees, returning IDPs and returning asylum seekers;
  • An increasing overlap between displacement and other affected mobile populations, including rural-urban migrants, the urban poor, irregular migrants and economic migrants;
  • A geographical range centered on Afghanistan and extending outwards to neighboring states, transit states, and countries of destination in the West; and
  • A displacement trajectory that has already started, will accelerate gradually to the April 2014 election, and may then accelerate further to the end of 2014 and beyond.

A number of policy responses may be suggested.

First, contingency planning is required by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian agencies directly involved in refugee and IDP protection and assistance.

Second, advocacy is needed to encourage the Governments of Iran and Pakistan to provide access for new refugees. In Iran, if – as seems likely – the Government is determined to close the border in the face of new refugee flows, the primary task will be to maintain humanitarian access to border area camps. At the same time both Pakistan and Iran should be urged to maintain asylum space for the refugees already there.

Third, advocacy is needed in countries beyond the immediate region: to exercise flexibility in their migration program to address protection risks to their former staff members as a result of their employment; to prepare for a surge in Afghan asylum applications; and to focus on human rights in assessing whether to return unsuccessful asylum seekers or irregular migrants to Afghanistan.