Afghanistan is considered one of the most dangerous and crisis-ridden countries in the world. A number of factors, including conflict and disasters brought on by natural hazards, often combine to cause internal displacement. Widespread unemployment, poverty, landlessness and a lack of basic services complicate the situation even further.
Continuous armed conflict, insecurity, human rights violations and recurrent disasters mean that flight and mobility have been familiar coping strategies for many Afghans for almost four decades. Large numbers of people in Afghanistan have experienced some form of displacement in their lives.
Afghanistan has been in a state of protracted conflict for more than 35 years, hampering interventions to reduce poverty, limiting development and straining the social fabric and coping mechanisms. The country’s history of displacement driven by conflict goes back to the late 1970s. The war between its Soviet-backed government and mujahideen opposition fighters, and the subsequent Soviet invasion and occupation, caused millions of people to flee the country.
After the fall of the communist government in 1992, civil war between mujahideen factions divided along ethnic lines spread throughout Afghanistan, and by 2001 the war had displaced 400,000 people into camps near Jalalabad, Mazar-i-Sharif and Herat. The Taliban rose to power in 1996, and the intense conflict between the Taliban’s mainly Pashtun forces and mujahideen fighters from Tajik, Uzbek and other ethnic groups displaced an additional million people.
In response to the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States, perpetrated by members of the Taliban-backed al-Qaeda network, NATO established the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and intervened militarily in Afghanistan. US forces launched their own parallel intervention. Conflict between the US-backed Northern Alliance and the Taliban and its supporters continued, as did inter-ethnic violence, and this combination of factors culminated in years of large-scale internal displacement.
Conflict in Afghanistan has continued to destabilise society, cause civilian casualties and result in large-scale displacement in recent years. The number of people internally displaced by conflict has been on the rise since 2009, driven by an increase in violence by non-state armed groups (NSAGs) and counterinsurgency operations by national and, to a lesser extent, the remaining international security forces. According to IDMC estimates, conflict and violence displaced an estimated 652,000 people in 2016, and an estimated 474,000 people in 2017.
Disasters brought on by natural hazards have also caused people to flee their homes, in some cases affecting people already displaced by conflict and violence. Disasters often worsen the effects of conflict, and it is sometimes a combination of both factors that forces people to flee.
Afghanistan’s topography is dominated by mountain ranges that cover all but the north-central and south-western regions of the country, which consist of plains and desert. Seasonal rainfall, floods and the resulting landslides regularly affect the northern and north-eastern regions, destroying homes and infrastructure and driving displacement.
The country is also exposed to drought, earthquakes, extreme temperatures, avalanches and storms. Earthquakes are frequent in the northern parts of the country and often trigger large landslides. The high levels of poverty and illiteracy, lack of income-generating opportunities, chronic health problems and poor infrastructure prevalent in the country have resulted in high vulnerability among people living in areas exposed to those hazards.
Disasters affect an average of 250,000 people a year in Afghanistan. Droughts from lack of rain, or floods and mudslides due to melting snow, directly influence the income and economic stability of the country’s households. Their vulnerability has increased because of the frequency of disasters and insufficient investment in disaster risk reduction strategies.
Most of Afghanistan’s provinces have been affected by displacement caused by conflict. By 2016, after an intensification of violence across the north and north-east in 2015, all 34 provinces were hosting IDPs and 31 had recorded incidents of displacement. In 2017, this trend was consolidated and there was active conflict in much of the country, with the UN re-inserting Afghanistan in its list of active conflicts. IDMC reported on 474,000 new displacements throughout the year, although there is not a high confidence in this figure due to a lack of access and problems with verifying caseloads of displaced populations.
People displaced by conflict and violence tend to make efforts to stay close to their homes, moving from rural areas to the provincial capital or a neighbouring province. Many seek shelter with host communities or, in the case of those who flee to urban areas, in informal or unplanned settlements. Those who flee to the cities from rural areas do so because they believe cities are relatively safe and provide better access to infrastructure, services and livelihoods.
Some IDPs flee violence for a relatively short time, but many others are displaced for longer periods. Internal displacement is becoming more protracted, as the deteriorating security situation has made it difficult for people to return home. As early as 2012, a survey of more than 1,000 displaced households found that 11 per cent had been displaced for over a decade, while nearly 50 per cent had been displaced since 2009. IDPs living in protracted displacement struggle to meet their families’ food needs and find employment just as much as those who have been displaced more recently.
Magnifying the displacement crisis, the forced and spontaneous return of Afghans from Iran and Pakistan has increased dramatically in recent years. Over 1 million documented and undocumented Afghans returned from Iran and Pakistan in 2016, and over 610,000 returned from those countries in 2017.
These large-scale returns, whether forced, spontaneous or assisted, have prompted UN agencies and NGOs to warn that significant secondary displacement is likely, and the humanitarian country team for Afghanistan has said that it will bring about considerable needs. Undocumented and involuntary returnees and those unable to return to their areas of origin are at particular risk because they tend not to be monitored or assisted, but rather fall off the humanitarian agencies’ radar soon after returning. As such, they are likely to find themselves in a situation of internal displacement after returning to Afghanistan.
Regardless of the cause of their displacement, IDPs in Afghanistan tend to face similar protection challenges. The priority needs of IDPs, over half of whom are children, include protection, shelter and food security.
The severity and spread of the ongoing conflict continued to exact a heavy toll on Afghanistan in 2017, leading to an overall lack of civilian protection. In general, IDPs suffer significantly higher rates of mortality than the general population, as they remain at high risk of physical attacks and abduction, and of being caught in crossfire, particularly when fleeing violence. Children are vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, interrupted school attendance and child labour. Female IDPs face higher protection concerns and the risk of early and forced marriages.
IDPs in Afghanistan live in precarious conditions. About 900,000 IDPs currently live in informal settlements characterised by a lack of adequate water and sanitation facilities. In addition, IDPs living in rented facilities are at risk of being evicted if they cannot pay rent. Food insecurity is high, with needs assessments in 2017 finding that 87 percent of conflict displaced IDPs are severely food insecure.
The data landscape in Afghanistan is one of the most challenging worldwide. An out-of-camp context coupled with a volatile IDP population, political tension, insecurity and a shrinking humanitarian space makes data collection and analysis a daunting exercise for actors on the ground and abroad. There are no formalized IDP camps in the country. Instead, IDPs stay in informal camp-like settings, or with family and friends, and often change living arrangements due to insecure livelihoods and tensions with host communities. Refugees returning from abroad such as from Pakistan and Iran are also difficult to track, and may experience a range of different living conditions upon return to their country of origin. This can make their IDP status difficult to determine.
The operating context is difficult for humanitarian organizations, which translates into a difficulty in obtaining data on internal displacement. Due to worsening security conditions, many humanitarian organizations have moved away from remote areas where active conflict is occurring, and base their activities in regional hubs, away from where many IDPs currently live. The mix of organizations present in different regions has changed over time, which means that different methodologies for collecting data on IDPs have been used, making year-on-year comparisons difficult.
Nevertheless, efforts are being made to compile a comprehensive picture of displacement. IDMC has been directly liaising with UN agencies and other humanitarians in the field in order to produce the best estimates of displacement under such constraining circumstances. The estimates for the stock figure for 2017 comes from a range of different sources including assessments of informal settlements from REACH, and individual registrations and de-registrations from UNHCR. The new displacement data comes from OCHA, which is mandated to provide support for people in the first 6 months that they become displaced. OCHA oversees a government-run petition system for IDPs seeking humanitarian assistance. However, they caution that many people registering as IDPs under the petition system may not meet the definition of IDPs, leading to a possible overestimate in these figures.
|Displacement type||Return (Flow)||IDPs (Stock)||New Displacement (Flow)|
Percentage of population
Percentage of population
|Geographical disaggregation||Subnational - admin 1||Subnational - admin 1||Subnational - admin 1|
|Geographical coverage||Partial coverage||Partial coverage||Partial coverage|
|Frequency of reporting||Every month||Other||More than once a month|
|Disaggregation on sex||No||No||No|
|Disaggregation on age||No||No||No|
|Data triangulation||No Triangulation||Some local triangulation||No Triangulation|
|Data on settlement elsewhere||No||Partial||No|
|Data on returns||No||Partial||No|
|Data on local integration||No||No||No|
|Data on deaths||No||No||No|
|Data on births||No||No||No|
IDMC’s estimates are based on data collected by REACH/OCHA, UNHCR and IOM. It includes internally displaced people who happened to become displaced while living in the country, and other groups who happened to become displaced upon their return to Afghanistan from abroad. Despite significant humanitarian access challenges, we strived to establish the most accurate picture of the situation on the ground as possible with the help of our partners in country. These estimates should be considered as underestimates.