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Kabul’s hidden crisis


A major donors’ conference in Japan has focused attention on Afghanistan’s development needs after NATO-led combat troops leave the country in 2014. Commitments made at the Tokyo conference will be critical in determining the humanitarian outcome for years to come – yet almost entirely absent were any recommendations about one of the country’s most critical trends: Afghanistan’s growing urban displacement crisis. Rapid urbanisation, unsustainable refugee returns and internal displacement have led to burgeoning informal settlements in Kabul, yet in the face of dire conditions, national and international responses continue to be inadequate.

Afghanistan currently hosts a large caseload of both old and new displacement, estimated at almost half a million. That number is rising with a 45% increase in conflict-related displacement last year alone. Prospects are also poor for those seeking safety outside the country – Iran and Pakistan are increasingly unwilling to continue to host 1 million and 1.7 million refugees respectively and the prospect of forced returns is very real.

Current monitoring of internal displacement does not include those living in urban and peri-urban areas and the steps national and international actors are taking to address the needs of the displaced in urban areas and those of future influxes remain desultory. 

This is despite the fact that HPG and other commentators have pointed out that urban areas are a primary destination for IDPS and returning refugees in the country. The rate of urbanisation in Afghanistan is projected to be 4.7% between 2010 and 2015. Cities are drawing in economic migrants, IDPs and returning refugees, though after 40 years of conflict and little development distinctions between categories are exceptionally hard to make. Since the fall of the Taliban, Kabul’s population growth in particular has been phenomenal. In 2001 the population was between 500,000 and 2 million. Conservative estimates put it at 4.5 million in 2010. 

And how has this phenomenal growth been absorbed? The last comprehensive urban plan for Kabul was drawn up in 1979. In the intervening decades it was not adhered to as urban planning institutions atrophied during the civil war. In the 1990s large parts of the city were destroyed by fighting and then neglected under Taliban rule. Essentially, by the time of the 2001 US-led invasion the capital had experienced a decade of almost no investment in basic infrastructure. The city was ill prepared for this influx and its growth has not been managed. 

While urban authorities faced huge setbacks in adapting to rapid growth, negative attitudes and disregard by national and international actors have led to neglect of the urban displaced – to the extent even of threatening their right to remain in the city and to achieving durable solutions. The needs of the urban poor are not an evident priority for urban governance officials. One government official stated that ‘the best thing for the wellbeing of Kabul is to clean the IDPs from the city … Kabul city is the capital and it has to show the identity, prestige, and dignity of Afghanistan’.

How these populations will be provided for and integrated is admittedly one of many complex challenges facing the city, but it is a vital one. The overarching solution put forward by the authorities is to relocate the phenomenon entirely to a satellite city that has not yet been built. More worryingly, the authorities’ other favoured solution is for displaced populations to return to their areas of origin – yet the vast majority say they have no intention of doing so, even if security were to be restored, as long as services and infrastructure remain poor. 

In the meantime, many of the displaced in Kabul live in miserable conditions, with reports of children freezing to death in illegal settlements. These sites have by far the worst conditions in the city, including visible human waste. Even in more established informal settlements both displaced and longer-term residents struggle to access clean water and health and education services. In many areas there are also latent conflicts over resources. Securing an income to cover basic expenses is a daily challenge. As one respondent put it, the poorest ’burn the shoes of their children to keep the room warm in winter, saying tomorrow God will help us’. 

While there are laudable efforts by the UNHCR and World Bank to draw attention to the situation of the city’s illegal settlements, more donors and agencies need to prioritise urban vulnerability. If security conditions continue to deteriorate inflows to the city could well increase, placing further strain on services and land availability. To make matters worse, economic growth is expected to decline as international forces draw down their operations in 2014. Rather than encouraging return (to rural areas in particular), donors and agencies should support the solutions that provide the most security and opportunity for the displaced. These solutions can be found in urban areas – not least because the displaced have already decided that their security is best provided there.