Expert Opinion

Why Afghanistan must act now to adopt a national policy for its internally displaced

Afghanistan’s landmark policy on internal displacement was drafted earlier this year by the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation (MoRR) following a request in February 2012 by President Hamid Karzai and the Afghan Cabinet. Development of the policy for internally displaced people (IDPs) began later in 2012, and was welcomed by human rights and humanitarian groups as a key step towards addressing the needs of some of the country’s most marginalised people.

In May 2013, a national workshop was held in Kabul to finalise the policy. However, rather than being submitted to cabinet for adoption in June as planned, Afghanistan’s IDP policy has since stalled. Recent allegations of corruption and reports of disagreements inside the MoRR, which has led the policy process to date, raise further concerns the policy may never see the light of day.

A Solutions Strategy, but not for IDPs

At a side-event on Afghan refugees earlier this month during UNHCR’s governing Executive Committee, Ministers from Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan were there to outline progress and challenges in implementing the regional ‘Solutions Strategy,’ a multi-year framework to support voluntary repatriation and reintegration of one of the world’s largest refugee populations. Little was said, however, of Afghanistan’s rapidly growing internally displaced population, whose place within the ‘Solutions Strategy’ has always been unclear.

With presidential elections due in April 2014, Afghanistan is in a critical period of political and security transition, taking place against a backdrop of rising conflict. Documented civilian deaths and injuries are at their highest since 2001, and UN officials have recently highlighted a new trend of civilian casualties and forced displacement due to clashes between Afghan security forces and non-state armed groups. A further deterioration in security is widely expected next year, meaning it will become more likely that Afghan civilians, including refugees who have returned from Iran and Pakistan, will be forced to flee their homes as a result of conflict and human rights abuses.

Time is therefore of the essence as internal displacement is set to rise, while the opportunities for those displaced to return home, or integrate locally where they have been displaced, becomes less likely.

A national IDP policy is more important than ever before

Adopting a national IDP policy is a critical step in the in the right direction towards protecting the rights and addressing the needs of Afghanistan’s growing internally displaced population. Key provisions of the draft policy include those aimed at protecting Afghans from unlawful displacement caused by conflict and human rights violations, and those which strengthen a more coordinated government response.

For the first time, the policy clearly defines who qualifies as an IDP and sets out the government’s responsibility to provide life-saving assistance in emergency situations, if necessary with the help of the humanitarian community. The policy also guards against the forced return of the displaced to areas where their life, safety or health will be at risk. Refugees who have returned to Afghanistan and are living in a similar displaced and vulnerable situation to IDPs are also explicitly included under the IDP policy.

There is little doubt that the transition which Afghanistan is going through presents formidable challenges to the adoption, and implementation, of any new policy protecting Afghans’ human rights. But if we are to learn anything from the country’s long and tragic history of forced displacement it is that the cost of doing nothing is just too great. Despite the current challenges, the Afghan government should immediately adopt the country’s first national IDP policy, and donor governments, humanitarians, human rights and development actors remain key to ensuring that this happens.

Learn more about displacement in Afghanistan here.