In 2016, more than half a million Afghans fled conflict to places of safety inside Afghanistan’s borders. Over a third of the yearly total fled in just one month – October. This mass movement was caused by heavy fighting between government and insurgent forces. At the year’s end, AAN’s Jelena Bjelica looks at the statistics of Afghanistan’s internally displaced persons (IDPs).
The newly displaced: facts and figures
More than 580,000 people – 84,257 families – had been displaced within Afghanistan by mid-December 2016, the United Nations Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) reported. (For background on how IDPs are counted and recorded, statistics, see footnote (1)). More than half of the newly displaced population – 56 percent – were children under 18 years of age. In all but three of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, UNOCHA recorded some level of forced displacement, while all 34 provinces hosted the displaced. Kunduz, Uruzgan, Farah and Helmand produced the highest numbers of displaced people in 2016, while those receiving the most were Helmand, Takhar, Farah, Kunduz, Kandahar. That the same or nearby provinces appear in both lists show that many people seek safety near their homes.
October was the worse month. There were simultaneous assaults by the Taleban on several provincial capitals: on Kunduz city (see AAN reporting here), Farah city in the west, Faryab’s Maymana in the north and Helmand’s Lashkar Gah in the south. Over a third of the yearly total fled in this month alone, with 213,000 people (31,402 families) on the move. (More in-depth information on displacement is available from an interactive UNOCHA ‘dashboard’ (see here).
The highest number of displaced persons was recorded in the northeast region (Badakhshan, Takhar, Kunduz and Baghlan), where over 198,000 people – 28,354 families, fled from conflict. Almost half of them – 93,500 people – fled their home province in October 2016. However, there were other monthly peaks – 30,000 in January and 21,000 in July 2016. Almost three-quarters of all those displaced in the northeast were from Kunduz province (116,000 from Kunduz district and more than 25,000 from Dasht-e Archi district). While most stayed within the same district (eg over 61,000 in Kunduz district), a considerable number moved to other provinces. For example, over 51,000 people displaced from Kunduz moved to Taloqan district in Takhar province and more than 25,000 to Pul-e Kumri district in Baghlan province.
The second highest number of displacements was documented in the southern region (Kandahar, Uruzgan, Zabul, Helmand and Nimroz), where over 164,000 people – 23,867 families (mainly from Helmand and Uruzgan provinces) were on the move. The peak months in the south were August and September, when more than 36,000 and 37,000 people, respectively, were on the move along with March (over 22,000) and October (over 20,000 people). More than a quarter of all those displaced in the south (46,000 individuals) were relocated from Tirinkot district of Uruzgan province (which saw a massive Taleban assault in September. Some remained displaced within the district, but over 22,000 individuals fled to Dand district of Kandahar province. Almost 30,000 people from Nad-e Ali district in Helmand province were displaced, and more than 17,000 of them fled to Lashakar Gah. In the southern region, the conflict seethed throughout the year, resulting in some level of displacement in almost every month of 2016 (the lowest recorded displacement was in June – 2,904 people – possibly related to Ramadan).
The region seeing the third highest number of displacements was the west (Farah, Herat, Ghor and Baghdis). Here. 90,000 people (13,176 families) fled their homes. More than a half of them (around 51,000 people) fled from Farah district alone. While the majority remained displaced within district boundaries, around 11,000 moved to Herat district. However, the district of Farah also received people from the districts of Gullestan (around 2,000 people), Balabuluk (around 3,500 people) and Bakwa (a couple of hundred people). Over 56,000 people in the west fled in October 2016.
Annual displacement trends
2016 has been the highest year for IDP numbers ‘on record’, according to UNOCHA. This requires a word of caution; the records on the number of IDPs in the country prior to 2012 are scarce and unreliable. The estimated number of IDPs for the period 2001 to 2009, or earlier periods are patchy, variable and, for some periods, non-existent. A 2015 study by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), which is part of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and the leading source of information and analysis on internal displacement worldwide, offers a rough picture on IDP numbers in Afghanistan since 1978. According to the study, “by the mid-1990s more than 400,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) were living in camps near Jalalabad, Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat.” Following the Taleban’s rise to power in 1996, another million people were displaced. By 2002, according to IDMC, 1.2 million people had been displaced inside Afghanistan. The data for the period 2002 – 2010 are inconsistent and therefore not quoted.
A new increase in number of IDPs was noticed in early 2010; it coincided with ‘the surge’ in United States troops (an 33,000 extra were sent to Afghanistan) with the aim of defeating, or at least ‘degrading’ the Taleban. However, only after the UNHCR piloted a Population Movement and Tracking (PMT) mechanism “as a tool for live data assessments to enable appropriate tracking of the evolving situation of conflict-induced internal displacement in Afghanistan,” as explained in this UNHCR study in late 2011, have the displacement figures become more reliable. So what we can be certain of saying, is that 2016 saw the highest number of IDPs since 2011.
Between 2012 and 2014, the number of newly displaced persons remained below 200,000 per year (in 2012, 102,715; in 2013, 122,815; in 2014, 196,154). In 2015, the number of IDPs increased sharply with approximately 470,000 individuals on the move. “Between 2012 and 2014 there would be increases in displacement during the traditional summer fighting season,” Danielle Moylan, UNOCHA Public Information Officer told AAN, adding that “that has skewed in the past two years – with sharp increases seen in October, in 2015, due to [fighting and the fall to the Taleban of] Kunduz and, in 2016, due to [fighting in] Kunduz and Farah.” (For more in-depth analysis on Kunduz, see also 2016 AAN’s thematic dossier on insurgency and governance in Afghanistan’s northeast and 2015 AAN thematic dossier on the evolution of insecurity in Kunduz).
In mid-2016, it was already clear that the number of IDPs at the year’s end would have increased. Every week for the first six months of 2016, according to UNAMA, more than 6000 Afghans fled their homes, becoming IDPs. That was ten per cent more than in the first six months of 2015.
Trends noticed in the nature of the conflict, noted by UNAMA (see AAN reporting here). appear to be behind the surge in IDP numbers. In earlier years, the Taleban had been unable to mass fighters and menace urban centres because they were vulnerable to international air power. After international troops drew down to a largely non-combat mission at the end of 2014, the insurgents have been able to change tactics and have moved from using IEDs and assassinations to launching ground offensives. The impact on civilians has been clear. Ground offensives have not only become the largest cause of deaths and injuries in the war, but have also forced greater numbers of people to flee their homes.
The real number of IDPs
IDPs tend to remain relatively close to their homes, moving from rural areas to the provincial capital (if it is safe) or to a neighbouring province (see UNAMA 2014 Civilian casualties report). They often also try to return home as soon as conflict is over. Some manage to flee for relatively short periods. However, hundreds of thousands of Afghans are now living in protracted displacement. In 2015, for example, out of a total 1.17 million IDPs in Afghanistan, an estimated 700,000 individuals had been in displacement since 2008 (see UNOCHA 2015 Strategic Response Plan). Those in prolonged displacement often end up in informal settlements. UNOCHA September 2016 update on IPDs highlighted how living conditions of those in prolonged displacement are often undignified and unhealthy, without access to healthcare, clean water or education for children.
The cumulative estimates, ie those in prolonged displacement, plus those newly displaced show that the number of IDPs grew rapidly as the conflict intensified. At the end of 2010, around 352,000 individuals were living as IDPs. By the end of 2012, that number had increased to 500,000 individuals and by the end of 2015, there were more than 1.17 million IDPS (see IDMC chart for the cumulative estimates of number of people in displacement between 2009 and 2015 available here). In mid-2016, according to UNAMA around 1.2 million Afghans had been displaced within the country’s borders. OCHA warned that some of those had been displaced since 2002.
Those who are newly displaced receive a basic aid package from the UN and/or NGOs (according to a UNOCHA count, 33 organisations are currently providing assistance to IDPs; see here). However, given the shortfall in funding for IDPs and the huge numbers of newly displaced, those who have been displacement for prolonged periods of time may face a reduction in the aid they receive. An increase in the total numbers of IDPs also indicates that those in prolonged displacement will find it more difficult to return home, due to intensified conflict across the country.
2016 was yet another difficult year for many Afghans. As well as the IDPs, more than 600,000 people have been pushed out from Pakistan this year (see AAN latest reporting here). Another 427,000 undocumented refugees and deportees from Iran were also recorded by UNOCHA – although caution needs to be exercised with the Iran numbers as, according to UNOCHA, many of the journeys are circular, ie Afghans cross the border multiple times to seek work and repeatedly get pushed back. UNOCHA says that around 10 per cent of these people are found to be in need of humanitarian assistance. More than quarter of a million Afghans travelled to Europe in 2015 and 2016 and many are now facing deportation or forced return to their country (for example, an estimated half of the 190,000 who had sought asylum in Germany) (see AAN reporting here). Along with the 580,000 newly displaced within Afghanistan, this all adds up to a total of 1.6 million Afghans who have experienced or are now facing some form of displacement in 2016.
The increase in the number of displaced due to conflict, coupled with a shortage in funding (the UN received 82 million USD in pledges against a target of 152 million USD), indicates that displaced Afghans are likely to be extremely vulnerable to poverty. For many displaced, the biggest issue, however, is whether and when they will be able to return home.
Edited by Sari Kouvo and Kate Clark
(1) For 2016, UNOCHA collected statistics on IDPs by conducting joint assessments (ie different humanitarian agencies jointly assess petitions and make visits) throughout the country. These assessments are logged into a database. In previous years, this was the task of UNHCR.
In 2015, IDMC pointed out that “the figures tend to be underestimates, because they do not include all IDPs living in urban areas, who are often dispersed among economic migrants and the urban poor and so are difficult to identify.” The study also emphasised that figures “also exclude IDPs in inaccessible areas across all regions. Nor is data available on former refugees unable to return to their places of origin with which to determine whether they should be considered IDPs.” See IDMC study available here.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020