Displacement, Human Development, and Security in Afghanistan

Khalid Koser and
Khalid Koser Executive Director - Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund
Susanne Schmeidl
Susanne Schmeidl Senior Research Fellow, Griffith University (Australia)

February 16, 2009

Nearly five million refugees have returned to Afghanistan since 2002 and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) often cites Afghanistan as a positive example of refugee repatriation.[1] In reality, however, the return of Afghan refugees may prove to be one of the most ill-conceived policies in the Islamic world in recent times.

While in the right circumstances the return of refugees can contribute to peace-building and post-conflict reconstruction, those circumstances cannot really be said to have existed in Afghanistan when repatriation commenced in 2002; much less at the moment.[2] An estimated 40 percent of rural Afghans are malnourished; about 70 percent of the population lives on less than $2 USD per day; over two-thirds of Afghans over the age of 15 cannot read and write; and one in five children dies before they reach their fifth birthday. The economy was already described as ‘little short of catastrophic’[3] even before it was hit by the recent hike in food and fuel prices.[4] Barnett Rubin argues that ‘the subsistence economy has been largely destroyed, and Afghanistan relies on imports of food and exports of agro-based commodities—opium and heroin.’[5] At the same time there has been an increase in insurgent activity and violent incidents over the past two to three years. There are on average 548 violent incidents every month; there have been over 300 suicide attacks since the beginning of 2007; and the humanitarian space is shrinking.

Far from ‘going home’ to rebuild and make peace, many returning refugees are struggling to survive or have returned to Pakistan and Iran in the search of security and labour. A majority (80 percent) of the Kabul population (including many returning refugees and IDPs) live in squatter settlements that cover about 69 percent of the total residential area of the city.[6] Many returning refugees are unemployed,[7] and are going hungry.[8] In effect they are adding to the growing number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Afghanistan, displaced for a range of reasons from conflict to environmental degradation.[9]

As this paper suggests, the net effect of these displacement trends is to severely undermine the potential for human development (or human security) for the displaced as well as those who depend on them, and to stall rather than promote economic development in Afghanistan. There are also potentially wider national and regional security implications, including the growth of cross-border smuggling and trafficking, growing support for the insurgency in Afghanistan, and increasingly tense relations between Afghanistan and its neighbours Iran and Pakistan. New solutions are required, and the U.S. has an important role to play in identifying and implementing them.

This paper has four main sections. In the first section we provide a brief overview of the links between displacement, human development and security. Next we describe recent trends in displacement in Afghanistan, including the recent politics of refugee repatriation to Afghanistan. Third, we consider the implications of displacement trends for human development and security in Afghanistan and the wider region. In the conclusion we consider alternative solutions for the Afghan refugee crisis, and a role for the U.S. administration.

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[1] UNHCR, The State of the World’s Refugees: Human Displacement in the New Millennium; Oxford: OUP, 2006. There is some controversy over the exact number of returnees and it seems that some ‘rectifying’ occurred. Thus between 2002-2005, about half a million more refugees were reported to have returned than were initially registered in Pakistan (D.A. Kronenfeld, ‘Afghan Refugees in Pakistan: Not All Refugees, Not Always in Pakistan, Not Necessarily Afghan?’, Journal of Refugee Studies 21(2008), 1-21. See also D. Turton and P. Marsden, Taking Refugees for a Ride? The Politics of Refugee Return in Afghanistan, (Kabul: Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, 2002).

[2] Turton and Marsden, 2002.

[3] W. Maley, Rescuing Afghanistan, London: Hurst, 2007, 79.

[4] ‘Afghans hit hard by rising world food prices’,

[5] B.R. Rubin, ‘The Transformation of the Afghan State’, pp. 13-23 in J.A. Thier (ed.), The Future of Afghanistan, Washington, DC: US Institute of Peace, 2009, 17.

[6] World Bank, ‘Why and how should Kabul upgrade its informal settlements?’ Urban Policy Notes Series 2005, No. 2 A majority of all refugees (40 percent) return to urban destinations, with 29 percent of Pakistani refugees returning to Kabul alone (UNHCR ‘Statistical Overview of Afghan Refugee Population in Pakistan, Iran, and Other Countries, Returned Afghan Refugees from Pakistan, Iran and Non-Neighbouring Countries, IDP Population Movements, Reintegration Activities and extremely Vulnerable Individuals (EVIs) Program’ (January 2-October 31, 2007), Operational Information, Monthly Summary Report – October 2007, (Kabul: Operational Information Unit).

[7] UN News Service, ‘Returning refugees to Afghanistan struggle to earn a living wage’,

[8] IRIN News, ‘Afghanistan: Little to eat for IDPs in makeshift Kabul camp’,

[9] IDMC, ‘Afghanistan: Increasing hardship and limited support for growing displaced population’; October 28, 2008.