On September 12, for the first time this century, peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban began in Doha, Qatar. The Afghans view the talks as a major opportunity to bring about a dignified and sustainable peace in Afghanistan. The last nearly two decades of war have taken the lives of more than 157,000 people, mostly Afghans, and contributed to the displacement of millions more, both internally and across borders. Today, Afghanistan has some 4.1 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) – 1.1 million from natural disasters and 3 million due to conflict and violence.
The vast majority of IDPs in Afghanistan are living in dire conditions in informal settlements in or near larger cities. Their aim is to find shelter and access to better livelihood opportunities. There are hundreds of these informal IDP settlements across the country. For example, around the capital, Kabul, where national and international organizations are based, one can find approximately 50 informal IDP settlements. The people in these settlements were displaced for a variety of reasons, sometimes multiple: armed conflict and war; climate change, which includes intra-tribal feuds that are driven primarily by disputes over access to irrigation water and agricultural land; and economic problems.
Besides the lack of access to proper shelter, health and education facilities, the uncertain security situation is a key challenge, inducing many IDPs to remain in the settlements. Meanwhile, a study commissioned by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), supported by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) and researched by Samuel Hall in 2018, showed that the majority of IDPs are reluctant to return to their areas of origin due to an in-built fear of insecurity, which they believe will again force them to flee. Thus, the growing optimism for an enduring ceasefire and peace raises the question of whether IDPs will return to their homes after progress toward peace or even a peace deal.
During the opening ceremony of the peace talks, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said: “It is my hope that progress toward peace can lead to the return of millions of Afghans displaced internally and across borders, to their homes in a safe, dignified and orderly manner.”
However, progress toward peace and even a peace deal is unlikely to lead most IDPs to return to their places of origin; instead, there is a high chance that their number will increase, for several reasons.
First, climate change crises (manifesting in Afghanistan as droughts, flash floods, landslides, avalanches and more) are on the rise both in Afghanistan and the region. Even if IDPs return to their regions of origin, they may be forced to displace sooner or later due to climate change, which has been described as a “threat multiplier” that contributes to several other issues, including insecurity and displacement. In 2018, Afghanistan had more disaster induced displacements (435,000) than displacements caused by conflict and violence (372,000). Like many other developing countries, Afghanistan is less capable of taking pre-emptive measures to adapt to and avert the potential consequences of climate change.
Furthermore, feudal disputes and undesirable livelihood conditions in the homes of origin are additional factors that prevent many IDPs from returning. A major portion of the Afghan population relies on agriculture as a source of livelihood. This is why land and access to sources of irrigation stand out as necessities for a sustainable rural livelihood. In Afghanistan, water is the second most reported cause of local conflict given its importance to the food security and livelihoods of most Afghans. Therefore, the encroachment of climate change, poor water governance and growing demand for irrigation water could further intensify water insecurity and local conflict in Afghanistan. This ultimately forces people to displace or migrate internally in order to avoid disputes and earn a better living.
Second, after an intra-Afghan peace deal, it is likely that some war and conflict-induced IDPs will return, mainly those who were displaced by the Taliban, especially in recent years, and those who still have assets (for example, a house and agriculture lands) in their places of origin. At the same time, those without assets and those who have spent a long time in informal settlements may not return simply because they have nothing to return to. Many of these IDPs want local integration and a piece of land for housing, a promise made by top government officials.
For example, in 2016, the head of a large IDP informal settlement close to Kabul city, who, at that time had spent approximately nine years in the settlement, told a journalist: “We’re not leaving here until 1,000 or 2,000 or 3,000 or whatever number of us are here are all given housing: the elderly, children, women, men. … Until then, we are not leaving under any circumstances – they will have to kill us and our children before we leave.”
Third, people displaced due to the rise and violence of the Islamic State’s local affiliate (known as the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, or ISKP) may not return to their places of origin in the event of a peace deal between Kabul and the Taliban. This is because they fear being forced to flee again given that the Islamic State remains a security threat in Afghanistan, particularly in the eastern region of the country. In general, the east has been a major contributor to the masses of IDPs in Afghanistan.
Overall, it is important for the Afghan government (in particular, the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations), together with international organizations such as UNHCR, to focus on the local integration of IDPs rather than their return to the places where they originated. IDPs should be given assistance in accessing education and health services, and other basic rights as laid out in the National IDP policy. Both the public and private sectors should focus on specific schemes for labor market integration of IDPs in the locations where they currently reside. In addition, the Afghan government, with the support of its development partners, should boost investment in the development of water infrastructure. Among its other advantages, it may to some extent help to reduce the incidence of climate and economic displacement.
Sayed Nasrat is a researcher at UNU-MERIT/Maastricht University, the Netherlands.
Hamayun Khan is an independent researcher and works as a program associate with CORE – Community Organized Relief Effort, Washington, D.C.
Saed Mansoor Sadat is an independent researcher and works with INSAN Research Organization, Kabul, Afghanistan.
The views in this article are the authors own and do not relate to their affiliated institutions.