A key challenge for the Afghan government and aid agencies is how to help the country’s huge population of internally displaced persons (IDPs) reintegrate in their home communities, or - if that is not possible - settle where they are.
Conflict-induced internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Afghanistan number more than 460,000, and thousands of others have fled their homes because of natural disasters.
A recent report by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) suggests that three-quarters of IDPs want to settle where they are now.
In a context of widening conflict in the last 12 months between anti-government fighters, like the Taliban, and government forces backed by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), displacement is a growing problem.
Despite nearly four decades of conflict, around a third of registered IDPs are recent - displaced in the last 12 months, according to the 2013 Common Humanitarian Action Plan.
“The problem at this stage is that the government talks about returns and the IDPs about settling, so there is an expectation gap,” said Nassim Majidi, from consultants Samuel Hall, who wrote the NRC report.
“Some of the assumptions that are still common are that displacement is a temporary state,” she told IRIN, when in fact she says, “we found that vulnerability doesn’t diminish as people stay for several years, and sometimes people even become more vulnerable.”
Meanwhile, many analysts predict the withdrawal of international forces over the next two years is likely to increase conflict, something that risks creating further displacement and could further hamper a quick return home for IDPs.
That, says Majidi, makes now a good time to get the policies in place to facilitate integration: “We’re trying to change the discourse on internal displacement because the numbers will only increase in the coming years.”
Return, resettlement or integration?
There are generally considered to be three options for IDPs: return, resettlement or integration.
The latter requires an acceptance that their status is no longer temporary and shifts solutions from short-term humanitarian aid, to a more long-term effort to provide basic services, economic opportunities and housing.
“When it comes to a long-term solution we are talking about people in their own country and it’s their choice where to live,” Bo Schack, UNHCR representative in Afghanistan, told IRIN.
Those wishing to settle face a number of challenges including limited land rights, the absence of legal documents and poor living conditions that make them among the most vulnerable in the country.
Many live in tents or simple mud shelters. A third of children from IDP families do not have access to schools, and unemployment among IDPs is high.
“We are in a bad condition here. Ten children died of respiratory diseases during the past winter in our neighbourhood. The winter is here again and most of our children are sick,” Mustafa, an IDP in Jalalabad, told IRIN.
Mustafa has no plans to return to his home region, the Musa Qala District of Helmand Province. He fled two years ago due to fighting between international forces and the Taliban.
On days when Mustafa finds work, the family can eat; when he does not, they do not eat. He says he has not received any support from the government or international aid agencies. Last year his 10-member family lived in a Kabul bus station but when reconstruction work began there they were forced to move on, finally settling in Jalalabad in Nangahar Province, which has 68,432 registered IDPs, second only to Herat Province.
But integration is not without opposition. “We’ve spoken with mayors and municipal leaders and no-one wants to integrate IDPs. They say they are spoiling the community or the land and need to go,” Abdul Samad Hami, deputy minister at the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Returnees (MoRR), told IRIN.
"We’re trying to change the discourse on internal displacement because the numbers will only increase in the coming years."
In the past the government has been reluctant to allow infrastructural improvements in urban slum areas, where many IDPs live, for fear that this would encourage permanent settlement in areas where, frequently, they are living illegally.
“There’s still a lot of debate going on, with sometimes mindsets, assumptions and stereotypes that are difficult to change,” said Majidi.
Municipalities fear that public moves by a province to improve integration for IDPs will attract even more IDPs, and migrants from rural areas.
“This is going to be one of the hardest parts of the policy and this is really the bottleneck of any plans to implement a better response to IDPs,” said Hami.
Urban migration has seen cities like Kabul expand quickly from an estimated population of 1.5 million in 2001 to around five million today, putting a strain on local authorities.
“The government of Afghanistan, as many other governments in developing countries, due to the magnitude of the issue, has been hesitant in dealing with the issue of how to do urban development,” said Schack.
“It's a huge challenge to try and solve. These are major development issues and it should be much more of a priority for the international community as well, to support seriously needed improvements.”
A new national IDP strategy
Although IDPs engage in a sort of de facto integration, the Afghan government has no specific services in place to facilitate this process and no allocated spending either this year or last for IDPs.
However, with support from UNHCR and others, a national government strategy on IDPs, devised by MoRR, promises to create a more structured approach this year.
A first draft of the strategy has been written and sent to relevant government ministries for consultation, though a January deadline for responses passed without any feedback, and MoRR officials are worried about a lack of enthusiasm in other departments.
One thing the strategy aims to tackle is the confusion over how different parts of government - MoRR, the Afghanistan National Disaster Management Authority (ANDMA), or provincial governments - relate to each other on IDPs.
“There are big coordination gaps on the government side. Over the years the number of IDPs has increased and increased and so have the needs, and the government and the international humanitarian community have not been able to address the needs,” said MoRR’s Hami.
The draft IDP policy puts more pressure on municipalities to do more to support integration.
“A national policy will make it official that there is a population of IDPs in need and will outline how responsibilities will be shared. It’s an important step forward because it makes the government responsible for the issue,” said Majidi.
Such a document would outline the responsibilities of the humanitarian community as well. “The national policy will help establish a framework understood by everyone - more clarity is definitely a good thing,” said UNHCR’s Schack.
Even between humanitarian agencies, coordination can be a problem, says the NRC report, which criticizes a lack of information-sharing that makes it more difficult to profile, help, and follow-up on IDPs: “Once the first stage of emergency assistance is over, coordination between agencies becomes blurred and follow-up referrals and support minimal.”
While UNHCR has responsibility for conflict-induced IDPs, those displaced by natural disasters fall under the remit of the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Regardless of strategies, for the time being IDPs will continue to be dependent on aid.
But humanitarian agencies’ projects in the 2012 Consolidated Appeals Process (CAP) received only 45 percent of the US$448 million appeal - in percentage terms the world’s fourth-least funded humanitarian crisis.
Agencies say the shortfall undermined plans to support IDPs, despite them being one of the priorities in the 2012 appeal.
In 2012, some 244,000 IDPs and returning refugees received non-food item (NFI) kits, according to the 2013 Common Humanitarian Action Plan; UNHCR has been providing blankets, stoves and firewood, as well as running small-scale projects in IDP areas, such as flood protection and constructing secondary access roads.
A well-funded aid programme and the right reforms and policies to allow IDPs to gain a degree of security, stability and employment, could significantly decrease their vulnerability, and it would also send a positive message to the 2.7 million Afghans outside the country - the largest refugee population in the world: Returnees often find themselves unable to return to their home regions for security reasons and risk ending up in positions little different from IDPs.