A Different Kind of Pressure: The Cumulative Effects of Displacement and Return in Afghanistan

Chloe Sydney

IDMC’s “The Invisible Majority” Thematic Series, January 2020



At the end of 2018, there were nearly 2.6 million IDPs in Afghanistan displaced by conflict and violence, and more than 2.4 million Afghan refugees had fled abroad since 2012. More than 3.3 million Afghan refugees returned between 2012 and 2019, mostly from Pakistan and Iran. This report examines the relationship between internal displacement, cross-border movements and durable solutions in Afghanistan. The analysis is based on: a non-representative survey of 120 IDPs and returnees in Kabul, Herat and Nangarhar provinces; analysis of IOM Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM) data; and key informant interviews with affected people, government officials and NGO staff.

Key findings:

  • Most IDPs have been displaced from areas that are heavily contested or under Taliban control, and have settled in areas with better security.
  • Lack of jobs and livelihood opportunities in Afghanistan is a significant driver of cross-border movement. However, for many IDPs financial losses caused by displacement restrict onward travel across borders. Additionally, the shrinking protection space in neighboring countries is prompting fewer IDPs to seek protection abroad.
  • The distinction between voluntary and involuntary returns is increasingly blurred. Deportation threats, harassment, poor living conditions and a lack of viable alternatives have prompted many Afghans to return prematurely from Pakistan. The economic crisis in Iran has also accelerated refugee returns. As Iran becomes an increasingly unviable destination for Afghans, many are instead travelling to Turkey, either in the hope of finding better opportunities or as a stepping-stone to Europe—many are deported to Afghanistan. For those that find their way to Europe, their chances of being granted asylum are falling.
  • Many returnees are living in situations of internal displacement either because they are unable to return to their place of origin or because they have been displaced after return. Obstacles to return to areas of origin include lack of housing (damaged or destroyed), ongoing insecurity, and lack of economic opportunities. There is a sharp contrast between the experiences of documented returnees (registered refugees in host countries who requested voluntary return with UNHCR and national authorities) and their undocumented returnees (returned spontaneously or were deported from host countries, irrespective of whether or not they were registered with UNHCR and national authorities).
  • Both IDPs and returned refugees tend to settle in comparatively safe urban areas. Many IDPs find refuge in urban centers, where they live in protracted displacement, often in informal settlements. Many returnees who are unable to go back to their areas of origin settle instead in comparatively safe urban areas.
  • The large numbers of IDPs and returnees in urban areas is increasing pressure on housing, infrastructure and services, undermining prospects for durable solutions. This has caused tension between displaced and host communities, and poor conditions are driving people to adopt negative coping strategies, including further displacement.
  • Returnees and IDPs face similar impediments to accessing their rights and securing durable solutions. Challenges include: poor housing conditions; insecure tenure; poor access to healthcare; poor access to education; and lack of documentation. Those without a tazkera, or identity card, struggle in terms of education, employment, healthcare and loans. When support is provided, it is rarely as comprehensive as foreseen in the policy framework.

The author argues that a holistic response is needed across the whole displacement continuum that includes returnees living in internal displacement and affected host communities. The current response is fragmented, despite the adoption of a national policy on IDPs in 2013 and a policy framework for returnees and IDPs in 2016. Needs in terms of housing, livelihoods and basic services are significant, and the resulting pressure on hosts risks undermining social cohesion.