Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Migration

Guest Blog: No Frontpage News? Afghanistan’s Ongoing IDP Crisis

Susanne Schmeidl Dan Tyler 8 min

A powerful article published in the New York Times on 3 February 2011 has raised the critical question about what, if anything, humanitarian agencies are doing to address the growing IDP crisis in Afghanistan and how many children (and adults) have to die until the international community is willing to wake up and admit that there is a new displacement crisis, even if it does not fit the positive transition narrative. Although the latest wave of cold has finally created at least some media attention for this problem, the primary push factor for displacement, our guest authors Dan Tyler and Susanne Schmeidl* conclude, still is conflict.

In Afghanistan, where the rise in IDP numbers has been exponential over the past two years, those who have been forced to flee their home for reasons of conflict, pervasive poverty and recurrent natural disasters are a visible – and it seems unwelcome – reminder of the limited progress the international community and Afghan Government have been able to make over the past ten years. They also represent the stark schism between humanitarian and military actors in the country where the former have struggled to provide protection to those in need in the face of an ever complex operating environment where emergency needs are uniquely under-represented and unmet.
It is sad that it took several freezing deaths, picked up by a high profile newspaper article**, to spell out loud the writing that has been on the wall for several years now (find report on the subject here and here) to the Afghan government and humanitarian actors: Afghans did not return to stay, but are once again on the move as their lives and livelihoods are threatened. Only now, the exit options have begun to shrink, which is why urban centers (especially Kabul) are booming. Yet, for most the flight to Kabul was not what they had hoped for—a chance at survival—merely a prolonged death sentence, which struck during one of Afghanistan’s coldest winters.

The sad and sobering truth: none of this is new. Humanitarian agencies in Afghanistan have long struggled to profile the extent of the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. For years international donors consistently labeled Afghanistan a ‘post-conflict’ country and focused efforts around state-building and reconstruction, often aligning their government’s development (and humanitarian) funding to military objectives – both drawing attention away from the growing humanitarian crisis and creating a highly politicized (and dangerous) environment for aid agencies to operate in.

More recently, and since transition plans have been in place, the tunnel vision has only become worse and the international military juggernaut has been responsible for a sophisticated PR campaign that is briefing furiously to ensure that positive messages about transition progress and hand-over plans are reaching those international constituencies in troop contributing countries who are growing increasingly fatigued with the Afghan conflict.*** That recent announcements on faster troop withdrawals plans were announced by the French and US governments should come as no surprise – elections are due in both countries during 2012 and political leaders are attuned to fact that public appetite for military engagement is very much on the wane. How does the story of IDPs fit in such a scenario? Quite simply, IDPs should not—and hence—do not exist, but are called economic migrants of sorts.

Yet the primary push factor for these internally displaced is conflict, with economic problems likely contributing to the decision to leave—but these two factors are so intertwined, and insecurity so pervasive, that they are hard to differentiate (e.g., conflict destroying livelihoods). UNHCR reports that 2011 saw a 45 per cent increase in conflict-induced IDPs compared to the previous year. A total of 448,000 person are reported as internally displaced as of the end of 2011, with the appalling caveat that these figures are believed to grossly underrepresent the magnitude of displacement across the country as they do not include IDPs in urban areas and those located in inaccessible and conflict affected locations (read: about 50% of the country). Realistic figures could be as high as one million, but who is counting?

The majority of IDPs residing in informal settlements dotted around Kabul and other urban centres throughout Afghanistan had fled to cities in expectation that they would receive better security, livelihood opportunities and access to humanitarian assistance. These highly visible urban IDPs are actually far more privileged than urban IDPs elsewhere – a World Bank/UNHCR study last year revealed 90 per cent of Kabul IDPs surveyed report having received some kind of emergency or winter assistance, as opposed to 6 per cent of those surveyed in Kandahar. Thus it is a reasonable assumption that conditions for urban and rural IDPs across the country in areas far less accessible to aid agencies are equally dire, if not worse, especially where assistance is actively discouraged by government and local authorities**** who fear support to these IDPs will incentivize more Afghans to uproot and move.

These Afghans face unique challenges. Displaced within their own borders, often due to limited migration options, they are unable to access the same package of protection assistance that typically accompanies refugee status. In addition to this they also face political challenges related to their displacement choice, especially those forced to flee because of conflict. Their plight is muted, not fitting the international and national narrative about ‘all things are well in the land of Afghanistan’. As a result, the government response to the displacement crisis in Afghanistan has not been prioritized. Insufficient funding, capacity and lack of expertise on part of central and local authorities means conditions for IDPs, both during period of displacement and during the course of return have fallen well below international standards outlined in the UN Guiding Principles.

In the end, the question we have to ask ourselves is how many more children need to die and how many more Afghans need to be displaced until international actors and the Afghan government are willing to remove their blinders and face up to the responsibility that comes with a displacement crisis. It is time to get out of the dangerous poker game where political and military objectives trump the humanitarian imperative every time; or lets pull out that humanitarian ace that several donors have kept hiding up their sleeves and put it on the table once and for all. Then maybe we no longer have to read disturbing stories about children dying of something so utterly predictable and preventable as a very cold winter.

* Susanne Schmeidl is a member of AAN; she has been working in Afghanistan since 2002 and is currently with The Liaison Office. Dan Tyler is working as a Protection and Advocacy Adviser with the Norwegian Refugee Council in Afghanistan.

** Meanwhile, the New York Times (only) has followed up this article, like here and here.

*** Arguably, the ISAF story is already running out of steam. The UN this week reports that almost 12,000 civilians have died in violence after a five year consecutive increase in civilian casualties. That AOG-attributed deaths are far higher than ISAF is neither here nor there given deteriorating security conditions across the country which mean more Afghans face lack of access to assistance and the prospect of displacement.

**** Afghan officials have also denied the casualty figures, see this report in the New York Times.

A powerful article published in the New York Times on 3 February 2011 has raised the critical question about what, if anything, humanitarian agencies are doing to address the growing IDP crisis in Afghanistan and how many children (and adults) have to die until the international community is willing to wake up and admit that there is a new displacement crisis, even if it does not fit the positive transition narrative. Although the latest wave of cold has finally created at least some media attention for this problem, the primary push factor for displacement, our guest authors Dan Tyler and Susanne Schmeidl* conclude, still is conflict.

In Afghanistan, where the rise in IDP numbers has been exponential over the past two years, those who have been forced to flee their home for reasons of conflict, pervasive poverty and recurrent natural disasters are a visible – and it seems unwelcome – reminder of the limited progress the international community and Afghan Government have been able to make over the past ten years. They also represent the stark schism between humanitarian and military actors in the country where the former have struggled to provide protection to those in need in the face of an ever complex operating environment where emergency needs are uniquely under-represented and unmet.
It is sad that it took several freezing deaths, picked up by a high profile newspaper article**, to spell out loud the writing that has been on the wall for several years now (find report on the subject here and here) to the Afghan government and humanitarian actors: Afghans did not return to stay, but are once again on the move as their lives and livelihoods are threatened. Only now, the exit options have begun to shrink, which is why urban centers (especially Kabul) are booming. Yet, for most the flight to Kabul was not what they had hoped for—a chance at survival—merely a prolonged death sentence, which struck during one of Afghanistan’s coldest winters.

The sad and sobering truth: none of this is new. Humanitarian agencies in Afghanistan have long struggled to profile the extent of the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. For years international donors consistently labeled Afghanistan a ‘post-conflict’ country and focused efforts around state-building and reconstruction, often aligning their government’s development (and humanitarian) funding to military objectives – both drawing attention away from the growing humanitarian crisis and creating a highly politicized (and dangerous) environment for aid agencies to operate in.

More recently, and since transition plans have been in place, the tunnel vision has only become worse and the international military juggernaut has been responsible for a sophisticated PR campaign that is briefing furiously to ensure that positive messages about transition progress and hand-over plans are reaching those international constituencies in troop contributing countries who are growing increasingly fatigued with the Afghan conflict.*** That recent announcements on faster troop withdrawals plans were announced by the French and US governments should come as no surprise – elections are due in both countries during 2012 and political leaders are attuned to fact that public appetite for military engagement is very much on the wane. How does the story of IDPs fit in such a scenario? Quite simply, IDPs should not—and hence—do not exist, but are called economic migrants of sorts.

Yet the primary push factor for these internally displaced is conflict, with economic problems likely contributing to the decision to leave—but these two factors are so intertwined, and insecurity so pervasive, that they are hard to differentiate (e.g., conflict destroying livelihoods). UNHCR reports that 2011 saw a 45 per cent increase in conflict-induced IDPs compared to the previous year. A total of 448,000 person are reported as internally displaced as of the end of 2011, with the appalling caveat that these figures are believed to grossly underrepresent the magnitude of displacement across the country as they do not include IDPs in urban areas and those located in inaccessible and conflict affected locations (read: about 50% of the country). Realistic figures could be as high as one million, but who is counting?

The majority of IDPs residing in informal settlements dotted around Kabul and other urban centres throughout Afghanistan had fled to cities in expectation that they would receive better security, livelihood opportunities and access to humanitarian assistance. These highly visible urban IDPs are actually far more privileged than urban IDPs elsewhere – a World Bank/UNHCR study last year revealed 90 per cent of Kabul IDPs surveyed report having received some kind of emergency or winter assistance, as opposed to 6 per cent of those surveyed in Kandahar. Thus it is a reasonable assumption that conditions for urban and rural IDPs across the country in areas far less accessible to aid agencies are equally dire, if not worse, especially where assistance is actively discouraged by government and local authorities**** who fear support to these IDPs will incentivize more Afghans to uproot and move.

These Afghans face unique challenges. Displaced within their own borders, often due to limited migration options, they are unable to access the same package of protection assistance that typically accompanies refugee status. In addition to this they also face political challenges related to their displacement choice, especially those forced to flee because of conflict. Their plight is muted, not fitting the international and national narrative about ‘all things are well in the land of Afghanistan’. As a result, the government response to the displacement crisis in Afghanistan has not been prioritized. Insufficient funding, capacity and lack of expertise on part of central and local authorities means conditions for IDPs, both during period of displacement and during the course of return have fallen well below international standards outlined in the UN Guiding Principles.

In the end, the question we have to ask ourselves is how many more children need to die and how many more Afghans need to be displaced until international actors and the Afghan government are willing to remove their blinders and face up to the responsibility that comes with a displacement crisis. It is time to get out of the dangerous poker game where political and military objectives trump the humanitarian imperative every time; or lets pull out that humanitarian ace that several donors have kept hiding up their sleeves and put it on the table once and for all. Then maybe we no longer have to read disturbing stories about children dying of something so utterly predictable and preventable as a very cold winter.

* Susanne Schmeidl is a member of AAN; she has been working in Afghanistan since 2002 and is currently with The Liaison Office. Dan Tyler is working as a Protection and Advocacy Adviser with the Norwegian Refugee Council in Afghanistan.

** Meanwhile, the New York Times (only) has followed up this article, like here and here.

*** Arguably, the ISAF story is already running out of steam. The UN this week reports that almost 12,000 civilians have died in violence after a five year consecutive increase in civilian casualties. That AOG-attributed deaths are far higher than ISAF is neither here nor there given deteriorating security conditions across the country which mean more Afghans face lack of access to assistance and the prospect of displacement.

**** Afghan officials have also denied the casualty figures, see this report in the New York Times.

Tags:

Human Rights Aid IDP

Authors:

Susanne Schmeidl

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