Stuck in the Mud: Urban displacement and tenure security in Kabul’s informal settlements

Mohammad Abdoh and Anna Hirsch-Holland

Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre,  2019


Kabul is home to over 55,000 IDPs and returned refugees living in around 55 informal settlements, characterized by poor physical condition of shelters and infrastructure, and insecure tenure of residents. This paper examines how insecurity in housing arrangements (tenure insecurity) and differing local political and economic interests impact and prolong displacement in Kabul. Specifically, the paper analyzes: (a) types of tenure agreements and how displaced people understand these agreements; (b) effect of tenure insecurity on durable solutions; and (c) impediments to tenure security. Findings are based on a comparative case study analysis of three informal settlements in Kabul (accommodating primarily IDPs and returned refugees) with different types of tenure agreements and ownership claims. The analysis is based on both qualitative data (key informant interviews and focus group discussions involving residents, land owners, government officials and adjacent host communities, as well as observations on site) and quantitative data (KIS Taskforce informal settlements profiling exercise, comprising household data collected in early 2018 from 10,472 households across 55 informal settlements).

Key findings:

  • Many residents of informal settlements have no form of tenure agreement; and those that have either statutory or customary agreements are living on disputed land. 43 percent of Kabul’s informal settlement residents live in tents, and 44 percent in mud-brick dwellings. 41 percent of residents living in tents have any kind of tenure agreement, compared to 85 percent of those living in brick or concrete dwellings.
  • Residents of informal settlements have limited knowledge about land ownership and tenure arrangements. In nearly one quarter of all sites, an average of 45 percent of residents could not identify the landowner. 40 percent of residents did not know anything about tenure arrangements.
  • In one of the three settlements, residents have managed to purchase land from the purported landowner with a written document proving their ownership. Consequently, they have been able to build permanent structures, establish a school, obtain access to a water network, and plan for the future. However, they continue to face tenure insecurity due to ongoing ambiguity over the land’s true ownership.
  • In the other two settlements (more typical of informal settlements in Kabul), residents have little or no tenure security; they live in fear of eviction, prevented from upgrading their shelters, and not enrolling their children in school on the assumption that they may have to leave any day. Residents have been threatened with eviction, often multiple times. Eviction threats arise primarily because of the landowners’ plans for future development of the sites.

The authors attribute the lack of tenure security among IDPs and returned refugees living in informal settlements to weak policy and legal frameworks for the regularization of land occupancy. Such frameworks are meant to promote durable solutions either by formalizing the stay of IDPs where they are currently living (regularization of land occupancy, upgrading of settlements, and provision of services), or through relocation to allocated state land. This situation allows landowners to exploit the ambiguities, complexities, and weaknesses of the Afghan legal framework for their private gain, e.g. earning substantial income from charging rent to informal settlement residents, speculatively protecting land for potential real estate development (using the presence of IDPs to protect the land until such a time as they are willing to develop it) or grabbing land from others (including the state) who may hold a claim to it.