New report: Chronic emergency in urban Afghanistan

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A new report by the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) shows that the urbanization of displaced pose a serious humanitarian challenge. The population of the informal settlements in Kabul is increasingly marginalized and vulnerable.

Over the past decade an increasing urbanization of displaced has taken place in Afghanistan. In Kabul alone, 52 informal settlements housing over 32,000 inhabitants were identified as of last year. A similar tendency exists in the other big cities of Afghanistan including: Jalalabad, Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif and Kandahar.

A recent study conducted by the Danish Refugee Council shows that the population in the Kabul Informal Settlements (KIS) is extremely vulnerable. The situation is worsened by poor livelihood opportunities and little scope for improvement.

“The changes in displacement patterns pose a serious challenge in terms of protection, livelihood opportunities and cultural tensions,” said Rikke Johannesen, programme coordinator, Danish Refugee Council.

The KIS population faces exploitation as unskilled day laborers or find no work at all, and many are in danger of ending up in protracted displacement situations. Overall the KIS sites represent a state of chronic emergency, that requires a response that incorporates both humanitarian and development approaches.

“DRC tries to build resilience by working intensively with livelihood activities strategies adapted to the urban context,” said Rikke Johannesen.

The KIS population is extremely vulnerable, but in terms of security - most residents feel safe compared to their former place of residence. The vast majority of the KIS population wishes to stay where they are and integrate gaining secure land tenure and decent housing. This is not a likely future, as government policies and capital interests oppose an upgrading of the squatted areas, due to the speculative value of the land in urban areas.

“The population is under continuous threat of being evicted, for instance in the process of construction of new apartment blocks, that forces the population to put up housing elsewhere,” said Rikke Johannesen.

Additionally cultural tensions are at stake in the settlements. The new city dwellers are a mixture of conflict induced IDPs, Afghan refugees returning from abroad, flood and drought victims, and economic migrants. Different traditions and practices, rural and urban meet, creating challenges on matters of integration and protection of the displaced and vulnerable. Often the residents in the KIS are people kept in the margins by a mix of their societal discrimination and distrust, combined with lifestyles that somehow vary from the norm.

“They are considered outsiders, and their cultural practices differentiate them from the local community who look at them in some ways as untouchables due to unacceptable cultural practices,” said Rikke Johannesen.

The elders in the Shura Council are a symbol of the strong traditional elements present in the KIS. They represent the tribes or groups in each settlement, deciding on matters of the community. These elders serve as communication channels between the community and humanitarian actors as well as local authorities as the situation allows. They are generally trusted, but youth and women often feel excluded from the system. The patriarchal system is increasingly being questioned in the urban context, when traditional systems are exposed to more modern lifestyles. Undesirable situations are likely to occur, but at the same time opportunities arise for working in the urban context with rights protection and tackling of issues related to harmful traditional practices. The Danish Refugee Council is addressing these challenges in Afghanistan on an everyday basis.

Contact DRC Copenhagen for the full report