On the Record

Internal Displacement in Afghanistan

Khalid Koser

Before narrowing the focus of my presentation to internal displacement in Afghanistan, I think it’s worth setting the scene by reminding ourselves just how poor and insecure this country is: an estimated 40 percent of rural Afghans are malnourished; about 70 percent of the population lives on less than USD 2 per day; over two–thirds of Afghans over the age of 15 cannot read and write; one in five children dies before they reach their fifth birthday; there are on average 548 violent incidents every month; and there have been 100 suicide attacks so far in 2007. As you all know on Tuesday this week a bomb in Baghlan killed six MPs and dozens of school children.


According to UNHCR there are currently about 129,000 registered IDPs in Afghanistan. Compared to a global total of at least 24 million IDPs, that number is a drop in the ocean. Indeed, as we have already heard, there are more IDPs in most South Asian countries than in Afghanistan.

But this figure masks the true significance of internal displacement in Afghanistan for at least three reasons. First, it certainly underestimates the true scale of internal displacement, and gives no hint of the growing likelihood that these numbers will increase rapidly in the coming months. Second, it disguises a striking complexity of causes of internal displacement and IDP ‘categories’. Third, as a ‘snapshot’ in time current figures can divert attention from long term challenges in resolving internal displacement in Afghanistan.

I would like to structure my brief presentation today around these three themes.

The Scale of Internal Displacement in Afghanistan

The figure 129,000 mainly covers people displaced by drought and insecurity in the south of Afghanistan, who are living in camps, and have been displaced for significant periods of time. It covers some, but by no means all, of the growing numbers of IDPs living in irregular settlements in Kabul and other urban areas. It does not include more recent displacement elsewhere in the country arising from human rights violations, inter-communal tensions, floods or drought. Neither does it include at least 20,000 families – that’s about 100,000 individuals – displaced in the last few months by conflict in the south. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre reckons that the true number of IDPs in Afghanistan today is probably closer to 300,000.

Displacement in Afghanistan is very volatile, and many commentators are predicting a significant increase in the number of IDPs there for three main reasons.

First, there is growing pressure on refugees in Pakistan and Iran to return. There are still an estimated two million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and about 900,000 in Iran. In both countries camps have been closed this year, and the government is determined to return all the refugees in the short- to medium-term. 350,000 refugees have repatriated this year from Pakistan; while in spring 2007 Iran forced home 44,000 Afghan refugees. Added to returning refugees are other Afghan migrants being expelled – two weeks ago Iran expelled 8,000 undocumented Afghans. Many of these returnees will not be able to go to their areas of origin in Afghanistan – because of insecurity, a lack of livelihoods, and poor economic and social infrastructure. A recent UNHCR survey of returning Afghan refugees found that only 41 percent even had a house in Afghanistan.

Second, the escalation in armed conflict over the last two years shows no sign of abating. The number of civilians killed in armed conflict between Taliban insurgents and Afghan security forces backed by NATO troops has doubled in the last year with more than 6,500 people killed in the last 18 months. The number of people displaced by conflict grows by the day, predominantly in the south and east of the country. During a working visit to Afghanistan in August this year, the RSG expressed particular concern that the methods both of the Taliban and of anti-insurgency operations are disproportionately impacting on civilians.

Third, there are dire warnings of a pending humanitarian emergency in food-insecure districts in the west of Afghanistan – especially in Ghor province. There is a race to get food aid to these districts before winter snowfall blocks the roads – and if it doesn’t arrive in time people are likely to have no option other than to leave their homes.


Beyond these specific pressure points, there is a general sense of susceptibility to displacement in Afghanistan. The country is prone to natural disasters – floods, droughts, earthquakes, landslides. Drought-inducted displacement in the north of the country, particularly in Saripul, Faryab and Jawzjan provinces, is an annual phenomenon. Lingering ethnic tensions combine with a weak rule of law, an inadequate police force and a security force preoccupied with fighting the Taliban. Large swathes of the country are inaccessible for humanitarian assistance. And above all people are poor and vulnerable.

The Complexity of Displacement in Afghanistan

Internal displacement in Afghanistan is unusually complex. It covers different categories of people, displaced for different reasons, and over different periods of time.

It is possible to distinguish at least six ‘categories’ of IDP in Afghanistan:

  1. First, there is the protracted caseload basically covered by UNHCR’s official statistics and living in camps mainly in the south;
  2. Second, there are people recently and currently being displaced by conflict, especially in the south and east;
  3. Third, ethnic persecution of Pashtuns in the north has forced many to flee to safe enclaves in the north, or south;
  4. Fourth, there are returning refugees and migrants who are not willing or able to go to their areas of origin;
  5. Fifth, there is a growing number of urban IDPs – the population of Kabul has increased from 1.5 million in 2001 to 4.5 million today; and
  6. Sixth, an economic revival in urban areas, especially Kabul, has resulted in rising land prices and increased rents, and is displacing poor urban dwellers outwards in a form of development-inducted displacement.

At the same time, and adding to the complexity, there have also been significant IDP returns. Since 2002 UNHCR estimates that over half a million IDPs have returned to their homes in Afghanistan. The rate has dropped off significantly, but even this year UNHCR assisted over 1500 people to return home.

Of course these are not clear-cut categories and there is some overlap between them. But the complexity of the situation poses a significant additional challenge for policy. As the RSG observed in the report on his recent visit, ‘An effective protection response will be grounded in a solid understanding of the problem. Together, national and international actors need to identify and agree upon the contours of displacement’. In other words, before trying to resolve the problem we need to understand what it is, and at the moment we don’t.

Resolving Internal Displacement

While the causes of internal displacement in Afghanistan vary widely, the obstacles to bringing internal displacement to an end are often the same. These include:

  1. Establishing security. 78 districts – covering around one third of the country – are rated by the UN today as extremely risky.
  2. Establishing the rule of law. Street crime has mushroomed in Kabul; in a recent Asia Foundation survey in Afghanistan 74 percent of respondents reported that corruption is a major problem; and in a recent report by the International Crisis Group the police were described as ‘…a source of fear, rather than community protection’.
  3. Clearing land mines. Afghanistan is one of the most heavily contaminated countries in the world – 15 percent of the population lives in contaminated areas. Mines and unexploded ordnance kill or injure an average of two Afghans every day. There are still 700 million square metres of land that need to be cleared.
  4. Land rights. Disputes over land ownership and tenure are major sources of conflict in Afghanistan, as 85 percent of the population depends on agriculture for their livelihood. Many returning IDPs have found their land occupied; many also lack proper documentation to prove their ownership; there is a general lack of access to justice; there are poor dispute resolution mechanisms; and on the whole an absence of compensation. Government land allocation schemes have started to alleviate this problem but there is a long way to go.
  5. Infrastructure. As an illustration: Health workers lack access to over 40 percent of the country. And in October 2007 the Minister for Education reported that less than half the schools in Helmand Province are currently functioning.
  6. Livelihoods. In many parts of Afghanistan there is simply no opportunity to establish – or regain – a livelihood and source of income. There have been criticisms recently of some of the sites identified for the resettlement of IDPs by the government’s land allocation strategy, as they are located on barren land and far from local towns where there may be work.
  7. Vulnerable groups. Particularly groups of concern include: rural women; the two million or so widows in Afghanistan; and children who are vulnerable to recruitment for labour and trafficking.


In conclusion: prospects for IDPs in Afghanistan, as well as for the country as a whole, appear bleak at the moment. There is an Afghan proverb that: ‘There is always a path to the top of the highest mountain’. At the moment that path looks precipitous and the mountain very high.

*I am very grateful to Jacquie Kiggundu for her extensive background research for this presentation.