Authorities and humanitarian agencies in Afghanistan have struggled for decades with displacement, insecurity and natural disasters. But when delivering assistance, officials must make difficult distinctions among the long-term displaced, the short-term displaced and host communities living in abject poverty - divisions that fuel tension and resentment, and give rise to shrewd efforts to work the aid system.
Internally displaced persons (IDPs) living in the Karizak informal camp on the outskirts of the western city of Herat, face punishing conditions: barren hills and frigid temperatures. As Kimia washes her family’s clothes, she peels apart four of her son’s thick socks. He wears them all at the same time for warmth.
“It still doesn’t keep out the cold,” she said. "These tents are of poor quality, and the winds up here break them easily.”
Around 140 newly arrived families live at Karizak. Another 180 IDP families live at the nearby Pashdan site, also in tents. And in the past few weeks 1,436 displaced families have been moved to the new Sa’adat township IDP site, 35km west of Herat.
Many complain of tents not designed for winter temperatures and limited support, while aid agencies struggle to distinguish those who have been displaced from locals living in chronic poverty.
“The people have learned how to deal with agencies,” said Qader Rahimi, regional programme manager with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, who mentioned the way families divide themselves into smaller units in order to maximise the aid they receive. “Sometimes we [unintentionally] encourage them. If five families come, and we provide everything, 200 families will come. We give them half of their needs, and then 2,000 will come and only get a little.”
Negative coping strategies
Some 620,000 Afghans are internally displaced by conflict; 113,000 of them were displaced in the first 10 months of 2013.
In the last four months, growing insecurity and severe drought forced families from their homes in mountainous provinces of Ghor and Badghis. Many of them sought refuge in Herat.
At the Karizak site, Fatima makes bread over a fire fuelled by polystyrene scrap. There is little else to burn; the wooden toilet stalls recently built by a Western aid agency have already been used as firewood.
Nearby, Bibi Gull is trying to keep her 10-month-old baby warm. “He used to be very fat,” she said. He had fallen ill and spent three days in hospital; they sold a blanket to help pay the fees.
These are negative coping strategies, but the IDPs are making the choices they must to survive.
“We know that when people make a decision to move, they will go to the safest and most prosperous city nearby simply for livelihood opportunities and, obviously, security,” said Andrea Recchia, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) sub-office in Herat. “So it was a very rational choice. What we didn’t expect was for this caseload to turn into a larger group.”
An initial group of 420 families arrived in Herat in October, displaced by the drought. But when further waves of IDPs arrived, they told aid workers that insecurity had compelled them to move.
“Powerful people come to take our sons and brothers to join the fight,” said Khak Mohammed Khan from Chaghcharan District, Ghor, who is now living at the Karizak site. “If we say no, they attack us. Weaker people have no option but to give up their children.”
His account was echoed by other IDPs. Some had gunshot scars and other injuries.
“There was no harvest, but it was insecurity, not dryness, that brought us here. We want to stay here; we are not going back. We don’t miss home and our mountain farms, which were destroyed,” said Khan.
The shifting reasons for displacement caused a number of challenges for the humanitarian community.
Natural-disaster-displaced IDPs and conflict-displaced IDPs are handled by separate humanitarian agencies - the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), respectively. Additionally, natural disasters are seen as short-term displacement issues, while conflict and insecurity tend to create more protracted displacements. The former need help returning to their homes and restarting their lives, while the latter usually need longer-term solutions.
Some aid workers grew wary. “The people are seeking those channels which have the most benefit. They saw the conflict-displaced got UNHCR tents, and quickly changed topic. The people are too smart,” said Abdul Hamid Mubariz Hamidy, provincial head of the Afghan National Disaster Management Authority (ANDMA).
As the numbers of displaced people swelled towards the end of 2013, aid workers became concerned that new IDP sites were beginning to host members of the large community of long-standing IDPs already living in Herat - as well as poor Herat residents looking for assistance.
“It can be tricky to identify who are really IDPs, and you need to coordinate with local communities,” said Ivan Ceko, a humanitarian assistance programme manager with IOM in Kabul. He said that assessments will often come back with numbers of displaced that are 10 times the real number.
One aid worker told IRIN that all sorts of people “pop out of the woodwork” when needs assessments are carried out among the newly displaced.
“There are a lot of non-genuine IDPs. They may not be genuinely displaced, but they are needy and poor. The problem is that if you loosen up and assess the needs that are there, everyone will be seeking aid,” he said.
In August 2013, aid workers were already aware that rain-fed farms would face a collapse. An estimated 80,000 families were affected. But the 6,000 tons of government wheat aid promised in mid-September from Kabul strategic wheat reserves took months to arrive. Timely food aid in the drought-affected villages might have stemmed the tide of displacement, some officials believe.
“There’s definitely a pull-factor for those in rural areas to seek assistance... It’s much better to deliver aid in the place of displacement rather than here. We should give them aid wherever it is necessary,” said Said Hamed Gailani, the current head of Herat Province’s Department of Refugees and Repatriation (DoRR).
On 21 November 2013, some newly arrived IDPs in Herat were moved to a new site on the outskirts of the city - before receiving any aid - on the suggestion of the deputy provincial governor and with limited coordination with aid agencies. The plan had been to move all the displaced outside of Herat.
When IRIN visited the sites around Herat in mid-January, 20 trucks from the Ministry of Transport were loading IDPs for travel to the Sa’adat township site.
The IDPs were given little information about the new site. Many said they had been told that IDP assistance would only be delivered at Sa’adat.
Though most chose to move to the new site, IDPs were concerned about living far from the city and markets. “There [Sa’adat] is far away from the market. It’ll cost us 20 afghanis to go to the bazaar,” Abdul Salaam, an IDP, told IRIN. “They just take us there and dump us.”
Another IDP wondered why they could not just be given assistance where they were. “We are not like monkeys that they displace us. We are not willing to move from here. We don’t want to go there. We have told them, but they don’t listen,” said Bibi Schom.
But others held on to promises that assistance would be provided at the new site.
“They promised us winter kits, food and shelter. It should be a better location than this,” said Abdullah Asef.
The Sa’adat site is a housing-and-land project set up a decade ago for refugee returnees from Iran. There are several hundred houses, many unoccupied because the owners prefer to live in Herat.
“It’s private property,” DoRR’s Gailani said. But in the short term, “the idea of the hard shelters was to provide homes for IDPs without winterized tents”.
Even so, the site offers little protection from the elements. Temperatures drop well below zero at night, and many IDPs set up tents between the buildings to block the wind. But local officials see the site as a good way to move the very visible IDPs away from Herat, where some local residents resented their presence, while also making it easier for agencies to channel aid.
Within days of the first families arriving, the Afghan Red Crescent had set up a mobile medical tent and started handing out medicines. Some from the local community also got involved - Herat’s Chamber of Commerce and other local businesses sent food.
ANDMA’s Hamidy was concerned that local people would pretend to be newly displaced IDPs and would stay at the Sa’adat site until food was distributed.
“There is a risk of people just going to Sa’adat to get the free food, the thinking being that you can put up with a few hard days on the site to get three months’ worth of food,” he said.
The first arrivals got to move into the available houses. “There are two rooms here, and we’re 16 people who’ve been here for the past 10 days,” said the head of one IDP family, who had settled in a house. “We chose to come. It’s better than nothing.”
Later arrivals were not so fortunate.
“I don’t know where I’ll be sleeping tonight; we’re still waiting for tents,” said Mohammed Hassan. “We were promised tents when we arrived, but we’ve received only blankets.”
Still, Hassan says he is still glad he moved from Ghor.
“We had nothing there. This is far better. I’m not going back. Perhaps only in two to three years, if they improve the security and cultivation.”