After almost four decades of conflict and violence, the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorated in 2017 and the country was reclassified from post-conflict to one of active conflict again. The year was marked by a shift in conflict dynamics as the military moved to secure urban areas. This left a vacuum in rural areas that allowed the Taliban to consolidate control over 16 new districts.
Large numbers of people fled these areas toward urban hubs in search of safety, aid and government services. At the same time sectarian violence surged in Kabul, where a truck bomb in May and a string of smaller attacks in June killed hundreds of civilians. The attacks triggered protests against an already fragmented government and led to the announcement of elections set for July 2018.
Displacement has become a familiar survival strategy and in some cases even an inevitable part of life for two generations of Afghans faced with continuous violence and insecurity and recurrent disasters. There were 474,000 new displacements in 2017, and as of the end of the year there were 1,286,000 IDPs in the country. 167 Nangarhar province was hosting the highest number as of mid-November, followed by Kunduz, Badghis and Baghlan. More than 50 per cent of people displaced by conflict in Afghanistan have now been forced to flee twice or more, compared with seven per cent five years ago.
Despite the worsening security situation, more than 560,000 refugees and undocumented migrants returned from neighbouring Iran and Pakistan. The voluntary nature of these movements is questionable, however, and many of these returnees went back to a life of internal displacement because insecurity prevented them from returning to their place of origin or achieving a durable solution elsewhere.
This trend will grow while insecurity and a struggling economy continue to make it difficult for the country to absorb and reintegrate returnees. Afghanistan’s 2014 policy on IDPs grants returning refugees the same right to petition for assistance as their internally displaced counterparts, but like other IDPs they tend to lack information on the process or are unable to afford to travel to government offices to register.
Responsibility for putting the policy into operation has been largely decentralised to provincial Directorate of Refugees and Repatriations (DoRR) offices, but they receive little or no support from stakeholders to ensure its successful implementation. With 30 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces affected by renewed or ongoing conflict in 2017, many DoRR offices have also had to switch their focus from development and planning for durable solutions back to meeting immediate needs.
IDPs’ needs have changed little over the past five years, and returnees who go back to life in internal displacement face similar challenges. Some aspects of their situation have improved, but their most important reintegration needs remain the same: safety and security from conflict and violence, housing and shelter, and decent jobs. Many, however, continue to struggle to meet even their most basic needs for food and water, the result in part of significant aid reductions. Many also lack the information and documentation required to access education and other services.