20 October 2016
In my capacity as United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons (IDPs), I carried out a visit to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan from 11 to 20 October 2016 at the invitation of the Government.
The objective of my visit was to consult with the Government and other key national and international stakeholders on the main issues concerning internal displacement, implementation of the National Policy on IDPs in Afghanistan, as well as to identify humanitarian, human rights and protection concerns facing IDPs. During my 10 day visit I travelled to Kabul, Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif where I also met with numerous IDPs who spoke to me about their situations, challenges and hopes for solutions to their problems.
The findings presented here represent only my preliminary observations and do not reflect the full range of issues that were brought to my attention, nor do they reflect all of the initiatives on the part of the Government or its humanitarian and development partners. Over the coming weeks, I will be reviewing the information I have received in order to develop my full country visit report which will be presented to the Government of Afghanistan and the United Nations Human Rights Council at its 35th Session in June 2017.
Afghanistan is a country that has been beset by conflict and crisis for decades. For many, conflict has been an almost constant presence and internal displacement has become a regular occurrence or a permanent feature of their lives. Many people spoke to me about the resilience of the Afghan people and their ability to cope in conditions of great adversity. While this is undoubtedly true, it must not allow us to become complacent about the situation of the hundreds of thousands across the country who are either newly displaced by conflict or who are facing multiple or protracted displacement. The impact on their lives is immense and the vulnerability and suffering that they endure is devastating and must be recognized and addressed consistently by the Government and its national and international partners.
The displacement trends are sufficiently compelling. In the first ten months of 2016 over 323,000 Afghans were internally displaced by conflict across the country in areas accessible to humanitarian actors alone, continuing an upward trend over the last four years. Every province in the country is now displacement affected. Research suggests that displacement is becoming more protracted for more people, requiring the Government and its international partners to find new, innovative and sustainable responses for those who cannot return to their homes. As internally displaced persons seek security and safety in urban areas, protracted urban displacement is a growing trend, which requires durable solutions in the context of urbanisation and urban planning.
In 2016, it is estimated that over 800,000 Afghans, either documented refugees, undocumented or deportees, have returned from Pakistan and Iran and require significant and ongoing support and assistance to integrate back into Afghan society either to places of origin or to other parts of the country. Both internally displaced persons and returnees tend to flee or go to places where there are family ties or connections. This pattern of movement is a unique feature of displacement in Afghanistan. It means that community based approaches to dealing with displacement are essential. The displacement crisis in Afghanistan remains massive, and yet more displacement is likely to take place as the conflict intensifies before the onset of winter. Yet I am concerned that the crisis in Afghanistan is relatively less attended to internationally. Challenges facing the Government are massive and yet its capacity to respond is limited and constrained by conflict, economic crisis, and disasters. Now is time for the international community to remain consistent humanitarian and development partners to Afghanistan. The Government remains heavily reliant on international assistance and the Brussels Conference pledges are timely, if honoured.
The experience of displacement in Afghanistan
The nature of the conflict and offensives by anti-government elements mean that thousands may be displaced from their homes for relatively short periods. The emergency responses of provincial Governments and their humanitarian partners to such new and short-term displacement have been shaped by previous experience and are generally effective in locations that I visited. For example, just prior to my visit a mass displacement was triggered by a Taliban offensive on the city of Kunduz, resulting in tens of thousands of persons fleeing to Mazar-e-Sharif and other locations. Many of those people were efficiently sheltered in collective centres including the government-run facility, Hadj Camp, and provided with emergency assistance including food and medical attention, some of which was generously provided by local businesses and civil society. As the situation in Kunduz stabilized, the majority are now able to voluntarily return to their homes and are being assisted to do so by district authorities who provided them with transportation and initial assistance, in cooperation with the humanitarian community. Those I spoke with who were about to return welcomed the assistance provided, noting that they had experienced such displacement on three previous occasions.
While this demonstrates that a system of emergency assistance, support and protection for vulnerable IDPs is in place and able to be rapidly activated in some locations, concerns remain that must be addressed and this is unlikely to be the case throughout the country. There is a need for clarity of leadership and accountability in order to curb political interference in the assessment and distribution of humanitarian assistance, improve transparency and address the lack of gender-sensitive measures.
The rapid return of IDPs to areas of recent fighting may expose them to threats, including the danger of unexploded ordnance. Their homes may have been damaged or destroyed, and infrastructure and livelihoods may have been disrupted, including schools, hospitals and other public buildings which are frequently used by parties to the conflict during the course of hostilities. It is essential that return of IDPs is voluntary and that they do not face pressure to return prematurely, for instance by halting of the emergency assistance in areas of displacement. I emphasize that, even where displacement may have occurred for only a few days, it is vital that their return is monitored and supported to the fullest extent possible. Assumptions that they return to conditions of safety and relative normality must be verified and necessary assistance provided in their places of origin.
However, increasingly many IDPs who experience constant insecurity in their places or origin or frequent displacement due to conflict, take the difficult decision not to return to their homes. I met with communities displaced from Fariyab to Mazar-e-Sharif Province for example who had sold their land and property in Fariyab due to the conflict and insecurity. A community that I met at Rabat village near Mazar-e-Sharif was just one of many that have taken the decision not to return. They took this decision because they were able to buy land and begin the process of local integration in their place of displacement with the support of the local authorities and international partners. They have begun a process that will hopefully result in the achievement of durable solutions for them that meet their needs in terms of housing, service provision and livelihoods. This demonstrates that durable solutions do not always lie in return. Data analysis shows evidence that local integration remains the preferred choice of many. While this constitutes a positive model, it is all too rare and the vast majority of similar displaced communities who lack the prospect of safe return are not in the same situation. Lack of sufficient government budgets or funding from international partners mean that many who could benefit from similar durable solutions programmes receive only limited humanitarian assistance or are left to fend for themselves. Many are forced to develop negative coping mechanisms such as child labour and other forms of exploitation.
The IDPs whom I met described to me their experiences of displacement, their current situations and their needs. Many had been displaced multiple times. Their priorities included improved housing, education facilities for their children, access to healthcare and the provision specialist services including for pregnant women, water and sanitation, and access to livelihoods. Most lack employment and income or the skills to find work in their new locations having lost their former livelihoods in agriculture or animal husbandry. As the bitterly cold winter months approach it will become critical to also put in place winterization measures to ensure that the most vulnerable, including those without adequate shelter, are protected and found appropriate housing, heating and food.
In Afghanistan it is no exaggeration to speak in terms of a lost generation of children who have been deprived of education due to conflict and displacement. Some 56 per cent of IDPs are children, many of whom are out of school and may be required to work to support impoverished families. In Kabul, I met a 7 year old boy who is working as a garbage collector to support his family. The situation of displaced women and girls also requires particular attention and they face unique challenges associated with their displacement, including female headed households and widows who face barriers to land and property rights. Evidence suggests that early marriage rates increase in displaced populations as communities seek coping mechanisms to deal with their situation. Early marriage of girls may be a solution to the payment of debts or provide a means to obtain land or property. IDP women frequently lack easy access to clinics or healthcare for them and their children. Women informed me of their desire for skills training. I visited projects for women in such fields as tailoring, carpet weaving and embroidery which empower them and allow them to potentially contribute to family and community income through the sale of such crafts. However these initiatives are frequently small-scale and cannot be a substitute for sustainable livelihoods.
I am also particularly concerned about the situation of some other highly vulnerable groups within IDP populations, including persons with disabilities, older persons, and those who may be injured, ill or experiencing trauma or distress due to conflict and the experience of displacement. Specialist services and psycho-social support are currently inadequate or non-existent and must be stepped-up. Some challenges may require more innovative solutions to be incorporated into responses. For example, poor access to healthcare and restrictions on the construction of clinics in some locations due to the low population numbers, mean that options such as mobile health clinics should be considered. Of critical importance is also the adequate presence of female staff in health facilities, to guarantee full access to displaced women and girls.
Challenges relating to civil documentation were frequently raised by IDPs. Of particular concern is access to the National Identity Card or ‘Tazkira’, an Afghan identity document that is essential for accessing services, including education for children, access statutory justice, as well as purchasing land or property. Current regulations require those who have lost their Tazkira or who have moved to another location to travel back to their place of origin in order to complete the necessary administrative requirements for re-issuing of valid documents. IDPs are frequently not able to do so safely and this requirement may put them in danger. Recognizing the security and logistical challenges facing IDPs, the national Government and its provincial counterparts should take necessary steps to ensure that Tazkiras can be issued in places of displacement rather than their place of origin and with no undue administrative barriers. Based on Constitutional rights to education, the IDP Policy notes that no IDP student should be denied access to a school on the grounds that they have no school records or no Tazkira. The Government needs to honour this commitment.
In addition, the situation IDPs must be addressed with regard to the needs of host communities, whose generosity provides a critical life-support system for IDPs. The vast majority of IDPs find temporary housing and assistance within family or extended social networks putting pressure on the resources of host families who may themselves be poor and under pressure. While much more work is required to assess needs of IDPs even in areas that are relatively easily assessable to humanitarian and development actors, the situation of those in difficult to reach locations and areas under the control of anti-government elements, remains extremely difficult to assess and cause for concern. The UN estimates that a quarter of the areas hosting IDPs are not accessible. While efforts are underway to provide assistance to communities in such areas these are hampered by resource constraints, difficulty of access, bureaucratic barriers and security concerns.
The need for accurate and comprehensive disaggregated data on IDPs is consequently acute. While positive steps have been taken in regard to data gathering and analysis of new displacement, including by UNHCR, OCHA and other humanitarian partners, there is a lack of essential information on those in more protracted displacement and an accurate assessment of their needs. There is an urgent need to conduct further detailed profiling and needs assessments, including for the most vulnerable in the IDP population, in order to monitor the protection needs of those including women, children, older persons, and persons with disabilities.
National responses to internal displacement
During my first visit to Afghanistan in July 2012, I was privileged to play a role in helping the government of the time to develop a policy framework on IDPs, which was subsequently adopted in February 2014 as the National Policy on IDPs in Afghanistan. This essential document constituted a commitment to protecting the rights of IDPs in line with international standards and to put in place the necessary institutions, budgets and policy requirements to secure their futures and provide durable solutions for them. For a country tragically experiencing both conflict-induced and natural disaster-related displacement, this National IDP Policy was an extremely positive step. On returning to Afghanistan, one of my objectives was to assess how that Policy has been implemented in practice and what impact it has had on the lives of internally displaced persons.
My preliminary assessment is that while some positive developments can be identified, including initiatives such as Provincial Action Plans for its implementation in selected Provinces, much more must be done to bring the Policy to life and translate it from paper to action. The current government must take ownership of the Policy and begin to make better use of it as an essential component of its responses to internal displacement. The benefit of a Policy such as this is that it provides clarity, guidance and tools at all levels and for all actors. The challenge remains to put that into practice.
Having in place appropriate and effective institutions at the national, provincial and municipal levels to respond to internal displacement is an essential factor to achieve solutions for IDPs. Afghanistan has taken essential first steps in assigning roles to dedicated institutions, including the Ministry for Refugees and Repatriations, and the Afghanistan National Disaster Management Agency (ANDMA) and others and has established policy and coordination bodies such as the High Commission on Migration and the sub-committee of the Council of Ministers. However, those coordination mechanisms remain occasional and loose, the roles of key institutions remain unclear in practice and the institutions themselves are grossly under-resourced and lack the necessary tools, expertise and capacity to fulfil their functions adequately and to implement the National IDP Policy. This should be addressed as a matter of urgency and clarity should be provided regarding roles and responsibilities at different stages of displacement. I was informed that coordination across such bodies and between national and provincial counterparts remains poor.
Nevertheless, the work and activities of Departments for Refugees and Repatriation (DoRRs) at the provincial and district levels, in cooperation with some provincial and district Governors demonstrated to me that, given appropriate resources, capacity and above all the political will, they have the potential to function more effectively and to supplement and eventually take over key roles currently being undertaken by the UN and international humanitarian and development partners. Indeed this will be essential to the sustainability of responses to internal displacement in the long-term. Government responses to internal displacement should be mainstreamed across relevant bodies and Ministries and other agencies that are currently playing only a limited role such as those for education, women’s affairs, social affairs, health and development. These should be incorporated more effectively into responses to the IDP situation throughout the country.
Addressing internal displacement within national development frameworks is vital to achieve durable solutions for those in protracted displacement. There is a tendency by the Government and some international partners to consider internal displacement solely within the realm of humanitarian assistance which limits the scope of responses particularly for those experiencing protracted displacement and results in protection and assistance gaps. While recognizing that the continuing conflict and displacement crisis requires additional resources for emergency assistance, this gap in terms of development assistance to IDPs and IDP hosting areas must be resolved as a matter of high priority.
Projects being implemented in some locations which I visited in areas around Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif for example, constitute positive practices aimed at providing durable solutions for vulnerable displaced communities. These projects, while incomplete and requiring continuing support, demonstrate that progress towards durable solutions can be achieved where political will, resources, cooperation and community engagement, including with host communities, are all in place. They offer a model that can and should be replicated to the benefit of thousands of displaced persons around the country but also of the local communities that have generously hosted the displaced.
However I was disturbed to learn that funding shortages for IDP issues are restricting the ability of national actors and international partners to apply funds to displacement situations that have already been identified.
Land availability and land management and allocation processes remain a major challenge and must be resolved for IDP communities who are unable to return to their places of origin. Some progress has been made in locations that I visited allowing IDPs to purchase or legally occupy plots of land and gain title or rights to occupancy that will eventually result in land ownership. This provides them with an essential basis of secure land tenure upon which to construct their homes and begin to re-establish lost livelihoods. However many lack such access to land and therefore remain in precarious situations, reliant on the generosity of host families, surviving in informal settlements without rights to remain and at constant risk of eviction. Where land is not available in such locations, the authorities, in close consultation with displaced communities, should consider other durable solutions, recalling that these include supported resettlement in other parts of the country, including within the same provinces, acceptable to the communities in question. The diverse nature of Afghan society must be taken into account when implementing solutions for IDPs to ensure that no inter-communal tensions emerge due to the impact of population movements, integration or resettlement and in this regard, social cohesion measures should be in place. Processes of land allocation have often been marred by lack of transparency or have been implemented in areas that are not viable, poorly serviced and without the necessary infrastructures and services.
These shortcomings must be addressed to pave the way for effective lasting solutions to internal displacement.
International assistance to address internal displacement
It is a sad reality that other ongoing crisis situations, including those in Iraq, Yemen and Syria, have understandably required much needed attention and resources from the international community. Nevertheless it is vital that attention to Afghanistan by the international community does not wane at this vital time and that humanitarian and development support is maintained and enhanced as the crisis deepens. UN and international partners are particularly challenged and frustrated by declining funds while the needs of IDPs and other highly vulnerable groups are in fact increasing significantly on the ground. I urge the donor community to respond positively to the Afghanistan Flash Appeal launched on 7 September calling for some US$ 150 million to meet urgent needs for the remainder of 2016, as well as to an expanded Humanitarian Response Plan expected for 2017. Immediate as well as long-term funding is required not only for emergency responses but to enable humanitarian and development actors to begin to better plan and implement projects in the areas of resilience building, recovery, and livelihoods and address the more protracted displacement situations.
The Brussels Conference held in early October 2016 demonstrated that the plight of Afghanistan and the Afghan people continues to be of concern to the international community. A generous 15.2 billion dollars was pledged by States with a focus on peace, state-building and development over the next four years.
There is a positive momentum provided by the commitment of donors, partners and the Government of Afghanistan to improving the lives of Afghans through the Brussels Conference. I hope, and I encourage partners to ensure, that the funding and national initiatives within this framework for development fully include IDPs and their hosting communities who require immediate and longer-term assistance. Equally, I urge the wider donor community not to consider the pledges made in Brussels as a reason to turn away from Afghanistan since the needs for additional humanitarian funding are great and are not accounted for within the Brussels funds.
I was informed of positive national initiatives aimed at development and stability, including the Afghanistan National Peace and Development Framework for the next four years and in this context, the Citizens Charter, which should ensure that vulnerable groups including IDPs and returnees are included in development processes, the National Priority Program on Urban Development, which focuses on better regulating urban growth. However, I found that attention to IDPs within these frameworks is minimal and must be enhanced. At the district level numerous actors seemed not to be fully aware of these initiatives and how they could and should be implemented on the ground for the benefit of IDPs and IDP-hosting communities. Consultation and awareness raising efforts are required.
Finally, I take this opportunity to thank the Government of Afghanistan for its invitation to visit and its cooperation with my mandate at this critical time. I also express my gratitude to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and in particular the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights for their support that ensured the success of my visit. I thank the numerous other institutions and individuals whom I met and who provided valuable information to me and who are working tirelessly to provide support and assistance to internally displaced persons.