Rights & Freedoms

On the Run without Aid: The much delayed policy on Afghanistan’s internally displaced


Much has been reported on the plight of Afghanistan’s internally displaced persons (IDPs), their miserable life in informal settlements, and their lack of access to income, education and health care. Actions, however, have been scarce, both nationally and internationally. They have been often humanitarian in nature only and mostly short term. This is also because the Afghan government lacks a framework that clearly identifies responsibilities and durable solutions for a problem that many have chosen to ignore in the past. Now, although still delayed, such a framework, the so called IDP Policy, is underway – not in the least because pressure has been mounting to finally act, with the numbers of Afghans fleeing their homes due to conflict growing fast over the past year. AAN’s Christine Roehrs looks at the years of relative inactivity and the bumpy process developing the Afghan IDP policy. She notes that the document, although a step forward, is only the beginning: bigger challenges are ahead until IDPs get help, caused by blockages in the provinces, funding gaps, capacity problems in the responsible ministry and the upcoming elections.

This dispatch was supposed to start with good news. It was supposed to read: “Today [or any other day in the past 18 weeks] the Afghan cabinet endorsed the new policy for Afghanistan’s Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). (1) With this document, more than 500,000 Afghans who have been driven out of their homes and from their land due to the on-going – and intensifying – conflict in the provinces, and other factors, are closer to getting more, and more systematic, assistance. The policy plugs a gap that should have been filled years ago. It defines responsibilities, outlines strategies and gives the international community a hook to call for funding.”

Instead, the story starts as follows: “The long-awaited IDP policy is still stuck in the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation (MoRR), not ready for presentation to the Afghan cabinet for endorsement. Although AAN learned in May 2013 that the policy was finalised, last-minute vetoes and changes in the document by other ministries that are to co-implement the policy caused a delay of now four months and counting. One of these months, May, saw more than 34,000 Afghans newly displaced.”

The continued hold-ups indicate that even after the policy is finalised, the biggest challenges to support hundreds of thousands of Afghans on the run inside their own country will still be ahead.

No major international support without a policy

However, that Afghanistan has come this far and is close to having an IDP policy seems like a miracle to many people involved. A year ago, the initiative was all but dead. An international observer told AAN in February 2013 that it was “not getting anywhere because too many parties are dragging their heels”.

The process had been set in motion in December 2011 during a particularly hard winter that brought an unusual amount of attention to the fate of Afghan IDPs, some of whom died under the nose of Afghan and international agencies (see AAN reporting from February 2012 here). But soon it stalled. It was mostly the potential distribution of government land to IDPs that caused friction, acknowledging that IDPs might need to integrate locally (where they settled after being displaced) rather than returning to their villages of origin. (2) An NGO official who attended talks with governors in the south (an area that both produces and hosts many IDPs) told AAN that the governors warned against a policy requiring them to provide IDPs with precious land. The fear that IDPs might settle permanently and pose an additional burden to communities, land allocation and budgets had – already for years – led to a “de facto policy of denial”, as a report by Amnesty International (AI) called it (read more here, p 36 and here, p 78). The AI report includes some telling quotes by aid workers saying, “There’s a big caseload of protracted, mainly urban IDPs, a big chunk, in Kabul, Kunduz, Mazar, Herat, Jalalabad, on the outskirts of the cities. The government is very keen to [re-define] them into economic migrants, not IDPs, so they’re treated as part of the urban poor and don’t fall under protection entitlements.”

The international humanitarian community, on the other side, was also clear: without an IDP policy, there would not be any major buy-in by the humanitarian and development community for funding for the IDPs. Its most important demand was that the Afghan government acknowledge the full range of solutions to end displacement, including local integration and resettlement. “Without a policy, we are in danger of continuing only short term humanitarian interventions for IDPs, which is not only costly, but also misses the more fundamental goal of finding sustainable solutions to displacement”, Gwendolyn Mensah, Senior Protection Officer with the UNHCR, said in an interview in September.

The result of this mutual blockage was that for years not even the simplest improvements took place in IDP camps and communities, such as building roads or providing electricity (read examples for Kabul here). The fear that moves to integrate IDPs would attract even more IDPs and migrants from rural areas would occasionally lead to the decision, as this report points out, to limit support for already displaced IDPs “to ad hoc interventions and single distributions of food and non-food items”, instead of providing the needed longer-term initiatives.

Altogether, interventions to address this significant and growing social-protection challenge were merely emergency responses and seem neither extensive nor adequate.

“Too normal” a problem to get attention?

Whatever its possible merits, the policy in the making is a late reaction to a virulent problem. For a long time, internal displacement was considered – both by national and international institutions – a relatively small problem and a common one throughout Afghanistan. It might have seemed ‘tame’ compared to the massive humanitarian and development challenges Afghanistan is faced with. Nearly every family in the country (3) can tell stories of temporary or long-term displacement because of natural disasters, local conflicts over water or land or armed conflict. IDPs typically receive the most attention as Christmas approaches, when international media are looking for human-interest stories. It was actually a series of angry New York Times articles about children freezing to death in Kabul IDP camps (read, for example, here) in the winter of 2011–12 that prompted NGOs and governmental aid agencies to act and get a grip on the situation. At least on parts of it. At least in Kabul.

The neglect is also because IDPs are not directly part of any international agency’s mandate. The so-called cluster system of the humanitarian community in Afghanistan divides responsibilities among UN agencies, governmental agencies and NGOs into certain fields: education, health care, protection and so on. IDPs as such are not a category of their own – instead, they fall into all of them at once. While many organisations organised in the cluster individually worked with IDPs, coordinating the necessary broad joint response seemed to have been difficult. As this report of the Norwegian Refugee Council points out, “Once the first stage of emergency assistance is over, coordination between agencies becomes blurred and follow-up referrals and support minimal.”

As for the Afghan government, previous attempts to tackle the problem, for example with the National IDP plan adopted in 2004, never really took off. The current key policy framework for IDPs is the Afghanistan National Development Strategy 2008–2013 (ANDS) – which focuses more on repatriating refugees than on addressing internal displacement. The drafters of the ANDS developed several scenarios for refugees, while concrete concepts tackling internal displacement are missing. Asked for an explanation, national and international experts just shrugged, but, of course, today’s huge challenge wasn’t that much of a problem at the time the National Development Strategy was drafted (IDP numbers were less than half of what they are now). Where IDPs were mentioned, they are mostly tied to the word “return”. With the fighting intensifying in many provinces this is often not a viable option, though (for other reasons see also here).

In the course of the past year, though, it must have dawned on Afghan and international institutions that the problem was silently growing beyond what NGOs or governmental aid agencies could handle – or ignore. Groups of IDPs fleeing popped up all over the country, particularly in the southeast, northeast and northwest where Taleban surges were strongest. In summer 2012 things started to move. An advisor to Karzai, Engineer Pashtun, former minister for urban development, inserted himself into the process, and a passionate international expert of the UNHCR came in to help draft the policy. She shook everyone awake who wasn’t yet, including parts of UNHCR itself. Together with MoRR Deputy Minister Samad Hami, she brought all necessary ministries (4) together at one table for the needed multi-sectoral approach.

“What people saw happen on the ground really woke them up”, says Sayed Ebad Hashemi, protection and advocacy coordinator with the Norwegian Refugee Council, the most active of the few NGOs that run IDP programs. While in the past a larger percentage of displacement cases were due to natural disasters and local conflicts, all of a sudden most were registered with the UNHCR as “conflict-induced”.

The struggle to get the numbers right

In 2012 alone, 166,000 new internally displaced Afghans were recorded, according to the authors of a joint report of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), the research company Samuel Hall and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) released in November 2012. At that time, the number of internally displaced due to conflict was “at least 460,000” (using UNHCR numbers, read footnote 5). To clarify their point, the authors threw in these figures: “The total population displaced by conflict grew [by] 45 per cent between 2010 and 2011. A third of all those displaced today fled their homes in 2012.” The UNHCR, meanwhile, introduced even 200,000 additional cases of conflict-induced displacement for 2012 into its database. It maintains, however, that only 94,000 had been forced to flee their homes in 2012 (the others earlier), while at the same time admitting that the numbers were likely higher, as lack of access to many affected provinces made it hard to gather accurate information.

As of 30 June 2013 – seven months later – 583,705 persons are considered internally displaced due to conflict. According to the previously mentioned NRC report figures as well as UNHCR figures from November 2012 (460,000 respectively 481,877 displaced due to conflict), this would mean 100,000 to 120,000 newly displaced persons in seven months. This indicates an acceleration in speed and scope of displacement (but is still a far cry from the desperate times of the 1980s and 90s; for historic figures read footnote 6).

All institutions involved acknowledge the difficulty of getting the numbers right, though. Everyone seems to agree that the UNHCR has the most complete data sets. But tracking systems face challenges. Numbers are cumulative, meaning that new IDPs are registered, but it is hard to check if IDPs registered in the past are still displaced or if they should be removed from the lists (or whether new IDPs have been registered before, given the incidence of serial displacement). Numbers also do not include displaced who moved to urban centres. In addition, the growing lack of access to many parts of the country makes obtaining solid data from the rural areas a formidable task. And then there is the challenge to assess short-term displacements – people who flee from fighting in their area for some time but then try to return home. “There are huge caveats about the numbers”, said Roel Debruyne, protection and advocacy manager with the NRC. “You would probably have to deduct some ten thousand, but then add again the ‘invisible’ ones, those that we currently do not have access to. We all agree that there are more IDPs out there than are registered. The big question is how much more: slightly more – or double as much?”

The Iranian and Pakistani factors

Whatever the exact figures, nearly 600,000 Afghans “officially” internally displaced due to conflict one year before the twin challenges of 2014 (elections and the exit of most international troops) is not a good sign. And 2013 is already on the way to be at least as violent as 2011 – the year with the highest number of attacks and casualties so far. UNAMA’s recent report on civilian casualties; see our analysis here) on civilian casualties indicated a 23 per cent increase in total civilian casualties compared to the same period in 2012.

The first eight months of this year have shown that the Taleban aim to weaken the government’s morale and power structures through daily attacks on police and army and do not shy away from targeting overland busses, banks, shops. Attempts to prove their superiority and to gain ground, physically and psychologically, before the big power struggle in and after 2014 naturally include intimidating the population. As AAN reported earlier, much of the fighting is not happening in urban centres, but in rural areas where mechanisms to subdue fighting and protect civilians are few to non-existent. In addition, a preferred target since this year’s spring offensive is the Afghan Local Police (ALP), which are based in communities as a first line of defence against the Taleban (read more here and here). This means that conflicts are carried right into communities where clashes tend to drag on (see as an example AAN reporting from Faryab).

With these factors in the mix, it is hard to estimate IDP numbers by the end of this year, let alone 2014 – but they are unlikely to improve. If the security situation remains as it is, migration experts carefully talk of another 180,000 Afghans on the move due to conflict within one year.

Other factors are also likely to contribute to more IDPs. In mid-August, the Afghan government signed an agreement with the Pakistani government to prolong until the end of 2015 the refugee status of the 1.7 million Afghans registered across the border, thus the feared – and threatened – ‘big exodus’ from Pakistan into Afghanistan does not seem to happen for now (it would also take away one of the Pakistani government’s favourite political pressure tools). However, a Pakistani National Policy for Afghan Refugees drafted this summer (developed, according to this newspaper article, because the Pakistani government is “fearing uncertainty in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of US forces in 2014”) calls for more “stringent border management measures and voluntary repatriation of refugees” to be reintegrated into Afghanistan – as far as reintegration is possible, at least. Returnees are more likely to increase the ranks of those already displaced, as many will not have the opportunity or will not want to go back to their places of origin – often poor and unsafe provinces. (7)

For Iran, data and policies are less clear. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW) “only around 800,000 of the three million Afghans estimated to live in Iran have legal status as refugees. Another 400,000 to 600,000 Afghans hold temporary visas, while others are undocumented.” HRW recently demanded that “Iranian authorities should shelve plans to expel hundreds of thousands of Afghans after their visas were set to expire on September 6, 2013”. The Afghan government has asked to extend this deadline.

Fright and flight

This is not only a numbers game, though. Apart from the obvious economic consequences, the psychological and social consequences of large-scale internal displacement should also be considered.

David Ignatius cheerfully remarked in a much-quoted Washington Post piece, “Afghanistan’s Improving Ways”, published at the beginning of this year, that today “close to half the population lives in cities and towns”. This is in itself no indicator of progress, though. It is mostly a symptom of fright and flight in conflict-ridden rural areas, where insecurity continues to obstruct access to basic services such as health care or education and disrupt local trade and agriculture, causing food insecurity and income gaps. As a result of this multiplication of displacement factors, the urban centres, promising remedies for these problems, swell and choke. In Kabul alone, about 40,000 people live in 53 informal settlements. Small IDP communities develop on city squares, in parks, in small gaps between houses.

These are desperate little communities, forced together by fate, not choice. Social workers active in these camps tell stories of social fabric becoming unglued: of people stealing from each other to survive, raping to avenge, beating to let off steam. Families on the run are detached from their clans and from traditional social safety nets (read about the latter, for example, here) – but also from the rules that make this kind of tightly woven society work. Conflicts also occur where IDPs try to resettle in host communities (contrary to public perception, most IDPs do not live in camps) and when newcomers compete with the established for the few available resources (read, for example, here and here).

This leads to another thought that has not been pondered much, yet. Can large and growing groups of displaced persons amount to an additional threat to security and stability? The angry and disaffected, also the unprotected, make good recruits for extremists. The authors of the report “Beyond the Blanket: Towards a More Effective Protection of Internally Displaced Persons in Southern Afghanistan” have observed that IDPs around Kandahar start to seek protection from strongmen and the insurgency “where national authorities are unable to assume protection responsibilities and international actors are unable to fill the gap”. Fittingly, NGOs warn that a “significant majority of IDPs is beyond the reach of humanitarian organizations” (see for a UN assessment also here).(8)

No budget, no capacity

As for solutions, the IDP policy – should it be introduced any time soon – is an important step forward, but it is only a baby step compared to the challenges ahead. As it should, the policy puts Afghan institutions in charge of the problem. A draft seen by AAN “recognizes the lead role of the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation in responding to the protection and assistance needs of IDPs”. But the MoRR is without money, ill equipped and badly coordinated, particularly on the provincial level where its departments would shoulder the largest burden, given that this is where displacement happens.

The already mentioned joint NRC, Samuel Hall and IDMC 2012 report states that the “lack of a national policy has prevented attempts to develop an understanding of IDP protection issues especially within the government. This means that protection of IDPs is an extremely nascent concept for government agencies. Staff are not presently sensitised to the concept of protection, indicating the need for capacity building at multiple levels.” While other ministries saw hundreds of international advisors and trainers come and go over the past ten years, those for the MoRR “can be counted on two hands”, as one observer of the ministry told AAN. It might have to do with the fact that the few international organisations working in the field and with the MoRR are humanitarian in nature, meaning their reflexes are focused on fast, short-term responses and less on the importance of building an institution’s long-term capacity.

But the lack of capacity also illustrates the challenge of finding supporters. Mio Sato from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) explains that “refugees and IDPs are not a priority issue for donor governments. They usually want to strengthen core functions of governments, like health or education or public works. For the support of refugees or IDPs, there are very few and specific donors.” The IOM was the first institution to start a comprehensive capacity building initiative in the MoRR in 2012 – but just having begun, the program had to be postponed for eight months (it turned out that the ministry did not know how many people it employed, where or for what purpose). The curriculum looks like something that other ministries saw years ago: how to use a computer, how to write a memo, understanding the internet and basic processes of HR, admin and finance.

The budget side does not look better – it is barely visible. This year, the MoRR has 787,190 dollars – most of it carried forward from 2012 because it had not been spent then. According to the deputy minister, all proposals for additional funding had been turned down due to a “lack of professionalism of the projects proposed”. International donors seem in general interested in supporting work with IDPs as soon as the policy is endorsed – “but the minister demands on-budget funding: money directly through his ministry”, says one international expert. Donors will hesitate, though, to spend money on IDPs that way, until they can be sure that capacity and integrity within the ministry are at tolerable levels. (9)

After the policy . . .

Most important will be, though, what happens after the cabinet endorses the policy. It stipulates that within three months the 34 provincial governors each form an IDP task force and develop “provincial action plans for durable solutions, including a funding strategy/resource mobilisation”. They are to assess the “unique situation” in their province, for example numbers of IDPs, reasons for their displacement, if they want to return or stay, skills they have and so on – a huge undertaking. A complicating factor is that not all governors are on board, with some still hesitating to accept that IDPs may have the right to stay where they are instead of going back to where they came from. “We will have to start with like-minded governors with a big enough caseload and then hope that others follow”, says Roel Debruyne, protection and advocacy manager with the NRC.

Another challenge is the upcoming presidential election that is likely to slow momentum for any serious policy-making. Before election day in 2014, governors will be busy politicking rather than tackling new issues – and afterwards new provincial personnel will probably be appointed, will need to be familiarised with the policy and persuaded that IDPs (usually not a priority for local authorities) should be taken seriously, among all the other problems they will have to deal with. There are many sceptical faces in Kabul when it comes to this question. In this regard, any further delay in finalising the document reduces opportunities for working with the current administration and making progress.

Humanitarian access will worsen in 2013. Looking at the endless back and forth about responsibilities and permissions and budgets while the conflict is intensifying and IDP numbers are steadily rising, a fast endorsement by all ministries and then the cabinet is necessary. More importantly, there needs to be better and longer-term international support for the implementing Afghan entities, specifically the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation, catching up on ten years of lost opportunities to help Afghanistan’s displaced me, women and children.


(1) IDP definition: Internally displaced persons are “persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalised violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognised State border” (Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, Introduction, paragraph 2).

(2) Afghanistan is a mainly rural society; more than 70 per cent of Afghans rely on agriculture for a basic income. Thus, owning land or having access to land means survival – but also power and influence. Identity and pride are closely linked to land ownership. The value of land is rising as land suitable for cultivation is scarce – only 12 per cent. In general, land tenure arrangements have traditionally been a source of conflict. Read more in Liz Alden Wily, Land Rights in Crisis: Restoring Tenure Insecurity in Afghanistan, AREU 2003

(3) An IRCR survey in 2009 stated that 76 per cent of all Afghans have been displaced in the past.

(4) Here all ministries and entities involved in addressing IDPs’ needs (” with sectoral responsibilities) – at least as the new policy envisions it:

  • The Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation
  • The Afghanistan Natural Disaster Management Authority
  • Ministry of Public Health
  • Ministry of Education
  • Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development
  • Ministry of Agriculture
  • Ministry of Urban Development Affairs
  • Ministry of Labour, Social Affairs, Martyrs and Disabled
  • Ministry of Women’s Affairs
  • Ministry of Justice
  • Ministry of Interior
  • Ministry of Defense
  • Ministry of Border and Tribal Affairs
  • National Security Council
  • Ministry of Finance
  • Ministry of Economy
  • Ministry of Haj and Religious Affairs
  • Ministry of Information and Culture
  • Independent Directorate for Local Governance

(5) The NRC claims to have used UNHCR numbers. The report was released in November 2012, but numbers might have come from UNHCR’s earlier monthly IDP updates as the summary for 30 November 2012 (see here) indicates more than 460,000 conflict-induced IDPs; it shows 481,877 Afghans displaced due to conflict.

(6) Even the incomplete and (probably) “lower than real” numbers available for the first half of 2013 have never been this high since the factional fighting in the 1990s – although, for now, they are still a far cry from those desperate times. Numbers rose to five to 7.5 million people (here, too, the numbers are all over the place) from 1978 on when the mujahedin challenged the Soviet-supported communist government. Six waves of displacement following different phases of the conflict (in the early 1990s) created an estimated two million internally displaced Afghans (source: Michael Knowles: Trends and Prospects for Refugee Repatriation, Washington 1992, Refugee Policy Group). In 2001, the UNHCR still noted 956,000 IDPs and another 3.6 million Afghans registered as refugees abroad (this source estimated that 1.2 million Afghans were internally displaced by 2002).

(7) “More than 40 per cent of returnees (5.8 million since 2002) have been unable to reintegrate into their home communities, resulting in significant secondary displacement, mostly to urban areas. Up to 60 per cent of returnees have experienced difficulties in rebuilding their lives in Afghanistan.” Source: UNHCR Eligibility Guidelines for Assessing the International Protection Needs for Asylum Seekers from Afghanistan, August 2013 :

(8) UNOCHA, the humanitarian coordination body, reported in July 2013: “The situation is particularly precarious in the southeastern, northeastern and northwestern regions of Afghanistan where there are reports of growing numbers of IDPs and limited access to these populations in need.”

(9) On the other hand, funds are slowly drying up. UNOCHA, the humanitarian coordination body, reports “a globally tougher funding climate and donor fatigue with Afghanistan”. Its funding appeal for 2013 included money for projects targeting IDPs but, according to OCHA itself, only 55 per cent was covered: 262 million dollars against the 474 million dollars required for emergency preparedness and response activities by UN agencies, IOM and NGOs.

Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,
Thematic Category: Rights & Freedoms