Afghanistan is one of the word’s most complex humanitarian emergencies, with over forty years of conflict- and natural disaster -induced displacement. According to the 2020 Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) revision, 14 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance, of which over 4.1 million have been displaced since 2012.
At the beginning of 2020, the situation of displaced persons in Afghanistan remained a key concern. According to the 2019 Humanitarian Needs Overview (HNO), there were 398,000 IDPs across Afghanistan in 2019, along with 453,000 returnees from Pakistan. In addition to the increase in the number of IDPs, the spread of conflict to formerly less affected areas of Afghanistan has triggered displacement in areas that were previously more stable and resilient, including the North and North-Eastern regions of the country.2 Beyond this, the number of returnees has increased, particularly in the West; although returns from Pakistan have slowed, economic decline in Iran has pushed hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees back into the country through Western borders.3 Natural disasters, including flooding, drought and earthquakes in 2018 and 2019 also continue to displace households and destroy resources, including land, livestock, and monetary assets - critical resources both IDPs and returnees need to re-establish their lives. These reported and well-monitored caseloads, however, often fail to include longer-term displaced populations living in informal settlements.
The humanitarian community regularly responds to the needs of recently displaced households through a variety of programmes, most notably the Emergency Response Mechanism (ERM). However, longer-term displaced households often settle into informal settlements (ISETs): displacement sites with no tenure/ legal agreement for land occupation. As consequences of having no means to own land legally, these sites tend to have limited access to essential services, such as water and health care, and are vulnerable to eviction.4 Within these sites, the needs, demographics, and current living conditions of most ISET populations are not well-understood.
A renewed focus on ISETs following the 2020 HRP has highlighted significant information gaps. Only a few needs assessments have been conducted in recent years, including two 2019 studies in Kabul by UN-Habitat5 and Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC)6 , a REACH pilot of ISET profiling in Kabul and Nangarhar in 20177 , and a countrywide assessment also conducted by REACH in 20178 . This most recent country-wide assessment sought to catalogue and identify the full number of ISETs in the country, but no formal updates have been made since. The lack of formal, standardized, and up to date data limits the ability of humanitarian and development partners to design responses to these long under-served communities.
In addition to the unknown characteristics of these sites in general, the recent and expanding COVID-19 crisis threatens to compound migration, displacement to and the existing service gaps in these sites. Vulnerability to the pandemic is heightened in ISETs due to characteristically crowded living conditions, low capacity and sharing of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) infrastructure, insecure livelihoods, food insecurity and limited access to health, social and economic services.9 This crisis heightens the need for information on ISET populations to better inform immediate responses for humanitarian aid providers and beneficiaries.
REACH’s aim with this assessment was to contribute to and progress existing ISET research in Afghanistan, by building on the existing DTM and UN-HABITAT site-level work, but focusing on settlements provided by clusters and implementing partners which were not already covered in the existing site lists.
To achieve this, REACH designed this assessment to identify and update key information on current demographics and basic service access within ISETs throughout Afghanistan, with a particular focus on COVID-19 vulnerability. The specific objectives were to:
1) Consolidate an updated list of informal settlement locations
2) Estimate the population size in each settlement, by population group
3) Create an updated profile of settlement needs and vulnerabilities
4) Assess key service access and availability
5) Create a vulnerability index for risk of negative secondary impacts due to COVID-19