Afghans have been enduring the adverse consequences of forced displacement for decades, way before the current “refugee crisis” gained the international spotlight with the surge of asylum seekers trying to escape conflict in Syria. Afghanistan is not only the country with the largest number of refugees in protracted exile, but it is also facing a sharp increase in displacement trends due to the escalation of internal conflict. It is estimated that 2.5 million registered Afghan refugees remain in neighboring countries, with a possibly equal number of undocumented migrants with similar protection needs in Iran and Pakistan1 . Internal displacement is no less of a problem, with an estimated 1.2 million IDPs’ population potentially in need of humanitarian assistance.
Despite the continuous deterioration of the security situation within Afghanistan, a shrinking asylum space within the international community and changes in the geopolitical equilibrium at the regional level have recently spurred the return (mostly involuntary) of thousands of refugees and asylum from Pakistan and, in lower numbers, from Iran and Europe. As of September 7th, returns from Pakistan alone account for 98,000 registered and 135,000 undocumented Afghans; additional 400,000 are expected to return by the end of the year joining the growing stock of IDPs.
The need for managing and protecting displaced populations is taking place in a country lacking a system of safety nets and suffering from a severe economic crisis that has pushed at least 1.3 million additional Afghans into poverty, and triggered a three-fold increase in unemployment between 2012 and 2014. Can Afghanistan manage the ongoing displacement challenge? Can the country absorb and successfully reintegrate displaced populations under the current security and economic circumstances? What priorities should the government and the international community address?
To answer these questions it is necessary to assess Afghanistan’s past experience with conflict and displacement, as well as the main structural challenges that shape the country’s future.