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On the move: Conflict, refugee returns fuel Afghanistan displacement

Most returnees end up displaced as conflict swells.

People return from Iran at a border crossing near Zaranj in Afghanistan’s Nimroz Province. Stefanie Glinski/TNH
People return from Iran at a border crossing near Zaranj in Afghanistan’s Nimroz Province on 19 January 2020.

Nearly one million people were on the move in Afghanistan last year, displaced by conflict and disasters or pushed home from neighbouring countries, according to new UN figures.

The tally underscores how conflict and migration continue to drive humanitarian needs in Afghanistan, even as new uncertainties pile up in 2020 – particularly next door in Iran.

More than 465,000 Afghan refugees or migrants returned from neighbouring Iran or Pakistan last year, according to the UN’s humanitarian aid arm, OCHA, which published the statistics on 18 January. At least 22,000 Afghans were also deported from Turkey.

They joined some 437,000 others displaced by war and disasters within Afghanistan’s borders:

In total, more than 900,000 Afghans were displaced or returned home to conflict in 2019.

Internal displacement and returns are closely linked in Afghanistan, where conflict continues to kill and injure thousands of civilians each year. Many Afghans return to find their homes behind conflict lines, and a stumbling economy and job shortages mean many end up worse off than they did living as refugees in other countries.

“The majority of returnees from abroad live a life of internal displacement,” the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre noted in a January report. “They are either unable to return to their areas of origin or become displaced again once back in Afghanistan.”

In some parts of the country, returnees and internally displaced people comprise more than one quarter of the population. New settlements are rapidly expanding around the Afghan capital, Kabul, and other urban areas, testing already stretched humanitarian responses.

While displacement and return figures escalate, there’s also new volatility early in 2020.

Aid groups fear tensions between the United States and Iran could trigger even more returns following the drone strike killing of Iranian general Qassim Suleimani earlier this month. Even before the asssassination, Iranian officials had reportedly threatened to deport Afghans in response to US sanctions last year.

More than 10,000 Afghans have already crossed the border from Iran in the first two weeks of January, according to the UN’s migration agency, IOM.

There’s political uncertainty on Afghan soil as well. Preliminary results of last year’s presidential elections – announced in December, after weeks of delay – put incumbent president Ashraf Ghani in the lead, but his main challenger has disputed the count.

Meanwhile, US-Taliban peace talks have resumed, but it’s still uncertain what role there will be for the Afghan government – largely shut out of negotiations last year. Conflict casualties soared even as the US-Taliban negotiations progressed last year, and the Afghan government has said a full ceasefire must come first.


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