The Millions Left Behind in Afghanistan

Farzana shivers with her seven children in what has been her home for more than a decade in Chaman-e-Babrak, Afghanistan. This settlement in northern Kabul houses hundreds of displaced families who have been forced to flee the conflict between Afghan forces and their international allies and armed groups like the Taliban. A tarpaulin hangs over the edges of her small, damp, mud-brick hut where the windows and doors should be. The roof leaks from the recent heavy rains; outside, the settlement’s barely walkable roads have turned to mud.

Farzana is 30 years old, and life on the run from the war has taken its toll. She fled her native Parwan province in the late 1990s because of fighting between the Taliban and local warlords and made her way to Kabul after a stint as a refugee in Pakistan. She has been her family’s sole breadwinner since her husband, a drug addict, left years ago and her oldest son was killed in a car accident. Aid — which she says was paltry to begin with — has dried up even more over the past years, with the Afghan government’s resources dwindling and international interest in the country fading. The family relies mostly on handouts — old bread from a nearby bakery, mostly — but it is not enough to feed them. “When you can’t put food on the table for your children, it is worse than being shot with a gun,” Farzana said. “I’m worried about my children and that they will die [this winter].” 

As the conflict in Afghanistan has intensified over the past year, due to a resurgent Taliban and the withdrawal of international troops, the growing violence has exacted a devastating toll on ordinary Afghans. In the West, stories of Afghans risking their lives on dangerous journeys to reach European shores have made headlines. Almost 200,000 Afghans applied for asylum in EU states in 2015, four times as many as the year before. But the vast majority of Afghans lack the resources to pack up and leave. Like Farzana, they end up becoming displaced within their country’s borders.

Internal displacement has exploded in Afghanistan in recent years. Today, some 1.2 million people have been forced to flee their homes due to the conflict in the country. This is more than double the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) just three-and-a-half years ago (almost 500,000 by the end of 2012).

Internal displacement has exploded in Afghanistan in recent years. Today, some 1.2 million people have been forced to flee their homes due to the conflict in the country. This is more than double the number of internally displaced persons just three-and-a-half years ago

Olof Blomqvist, South Asia Researcher

These are the Afghan conflict’s forgotten victims. As a new Amnesty International report released Tuesday shows, IDPs are forced to live in squalid conditions, clinging to survival. We interviewed more than 100 IDPs in camps and settlements in Kabul, Herat, and Mazar-e-Sharif, and all told the same stories. Most cannot find enough food for the day, let alone access essential services like education and health care. While these are common struggles for many poor Afghans, those displaced — uprooted from their communities, deprived of their livelihoods, traumatized, and without shelter — are facing even greater hurdles.

The Afghan government has failed to improve the situation of IDPs, and many government officials often treat their plight with callous indifference. At the same time, the United States and international governments risk abandoning these people who are bearing the brunt of an increasingly brutal war.

In 2014, Kabul endorsed a new National Policy on IDPs, which could have been a lifeline for those displaced. Widely hailed as one of the most comprehensive such documents in the world, the policy, for the first time, spelled out the human rights of IDPs and the Afghan government’s primary responsibility to uphold these rights. Crucially, the IDP policy also set out a thorough implementation plan and assigned roles and responsibilities across state institutions for turning it into reality. Food, schools, and clinics for the displaced looked within reach.

But more than two years later, the IDP policy is nothing but a failed promise. It has resulted in virtually zero tangible benefits for the internally displaced. If anything, those we spoke to said that their situation has worsened with time. The massive influx of the newly displaced means that competition for the meager resources on offer has intensified, and there are fewer essentials like food and job opportunities. With international donor money drying up as the world turns its attention away from Afghanistan, most people also reported receiving less aid over the past years. 

There are several reasons why the IDP policy stalled, all of which point to wider failures to respect and protect human rights in Afghanistan. For one, there is an enormous lack of capacity and expertise in the Afghan government when it comes to IDPs. The Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation, charged with coordinating the policy’s implementation, is badly under-resourced and has been beset by allegations of corruption for years, to the point that some international actors have stopped funding it.

The ministry simply lacks the tools to handle a task as complex as implementing a policy meant to benefit more than 1 million IDPs. Other ministries charged with allocating funding for IDPs and developing programs to aid them have either not done so or are unaware of the policy’s existence, as was evident from Amnesty International’s meetings with them. There is a major need for training and capacity building across the Afghan government on IDP rights and the policy. Thankfully, some such programs are already underway. But to make an impact, the Afghan government must expand them.

At the same time, the international community has failed to cover Kabul’s funding and resource gaps. With other crises grabbing global attention and donor money, organizations working for IDPs in Afghanistan have experienced major budget cuts over the years. Aid workers also spoke to us of a “human resources crisis,” where it is harder than ever to fill positions and the most competent staff are often shipped to more headline-grabbing crises.

The United Nations has asked for $393 million in humanitarian funding for Afghanistan in 2016. While this might sound like a big number, it is the smallest figure in years, despite the worsening situation. By May, less than a quarter of the requested money had arrived. While Kabul is supposed to take the lead on the IDP policy, its obvious shortcomings make increased international engagement all the more urgent. 

This is the tragedy of Afghanistan: While the humanitarian situation is worsening by the day, many international governments are less interested than ever. Many NATO countries are trying to spin a dangerous narrative that they have left a stable and peaceful country behind after the troop withdrawal, while the reality on the ground is the complete opposite.

While the world looks the other way, the conflict in Afghanistan is intensifying, and ordinary people are paying the price. Farzana is desperate to leave her settlement and build a new life for her family but sees no way out. “I hate it here. Every corner of this camp reminds me of my son’s death,” she said. A 16-year-old girl in the same settlement told us: “I see no improvement; our situation has gone from bad to worse. I feel like we are being forgotten. There is no attention on displaced people anymore.” 

The Afghan government and its international partners must act now to meet the country’s exploding displacement crisis before it is too late.

This article was first published in Foreign Policy