WASHINGTON – Afghanistan is a nation that has experienced the protracted stress of mass movement and displacement for decades. Prior to the increase of violence in Syria, Afghanistan was the largest producer of refugees for 32 years, and remains the second largest, with 2.7 million refugees at current calculations, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency.
Apart from these “registered refugees,” who largely reside in Iran and Pakistan, there are another estimated 2.5 million Afghans living as “unregistered” migrants in the same countries. Additionally, it’s estimated that close to 1 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) are inside the country. Taking all these figures together, some 6 million Afghans are displaced in the region.
As the Brussels Conference on Afghanistan convenes October 4, these figures present a challenge that could appear insurmountable at the national, regional and global levels. Most of the people fleeing Afghanistan had little to no security in the country, their lives threatened by conflict and severely restricted by limited economic opportunities due to general chaos and instability.
The countries with the greatest stakes in long-term stability in Afghanistan are China, Iran, Pakistan and, outside of the region, the U.S. All of these nation-states will ultimately need to engage in collective efforts toward Afghanistan’s sustained development and thereby a significant decline in displacement.
The U.S. had a particular imperative, having been militarily engaged in Afghanistan for some 15 years, the longest war in its history. Despite the intervention that began in 2001, the Taliban persists. The so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, has also taken hold. Afghan forces are weak. The narratives of Afghanistan and the U.S. will remain inseparable for the coming decades.
What steps, then, should the U.S. take to prevent new waves of refugees and proactively address the plight of the internally displaced populations?
Washington’s first step toward creating effective policy for refugees and IDPs in Afghanistan should be the effective registration of individuals. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the U.S. government’s leading oversight authority on Afghanistan, mentioned their inability to independently verify the number of Afghan refugees in the region in an August 2015 audit report. As international agencies currently rely on government systems of refugee registration, for example in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, to justify funding programs, it is critical to pay more attention to registration systems. Identification and reassessment of funding on this basis is the first step toward enabling displaced Afghans to be reintegrated into their country of origin.
SIGAR must also improve regular audits on funding for IDPs in Afghanistan. A SIGAR quarterly report from July 2016 found that USAID, state-funded nongovernmental organizations and U.N. programs in Afghanistan working with IDPs had highly uncoordinated programs and processes, creating inefficiency and inconsistency in education, food security, agriculture, health and nutrition programs for displaced people. A follow-up report by SIGAR went further in spelling out the extent of these limitations.
The security situation in Afghanistan makes consistent visits and aid to displaced people a difficult task. The Taliban remains in control of significant parts of the country, and ISIS has also made advances in the war-torn climate. This raises an important question: Can long-term development be achieved when security remains such a present concern? It is equally important to address the persistent confusion between the need to implement emergency humanitarian aid and long-term development, which has slowed down meaningful action for displaced persons and refugees.
Afghanistan does have a specific National IDP Policy created in 2014. But its implementation by the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations has been limited in practice. Efforts should be made to strengthen the ministry and build its capacity to help Afghanistan address these problems associated with IDPs at a national level. The UNHCR Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees is an overarching outline addressing Afghanistan’s complex situation with migration that could also help bolster efforts.
The United States, acting through USAID, has implemented programs that assist populations displaced across the country. Below is a map that outlines the response of USAID:
USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance serves as the U.S. government’s lead office on IDP issues. Between 2010 and 2014, USAID provided more than $67 million for the assistance of IDPs in Afghanistan. USAID efforts also include the Rapid Humanitarian Assistance Program, designed to supply non-food and shelter items throughout the country.
Economic development programs could also tremendously benefit displaced populations inside the country. Afghanistan has the potential to develop a sizable resources sector, including oil, natural gas, copper and hydrocarbons. If security can be stabilized, such business development would be extremely beneficial to the Afghan economy. At the same time, Afghanistan has one of the lowest rates of reliable electrification in the world, which has significantly deterred private sector investment. The engagement of neighboring economies like China will be crucial in developing the needed infrastructure.
Continued conflict makes any successful management of displaced populations difficult, if not impossible. USAID has had some prior success in developing infrastructure and promoting agricultural programs to support IDPs in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Likewise in Mali, USAID led programs that provided financial access to displaced populations. UNHCR has also had success in Serbia with scalable actions that provided individuals with the potential for economic independence. These cases of relative success are worth revisiting with the objective of emulating them in an Afghan context.
The U.S. bears a significant responsibility toward Afghanistan. For pragmatic reasons, the development of the country’s economy and the strengthening of local communities is in the mutual interest of the two nations. This development would help keep Afghans, especially the younger generations, inside their country of origin, rather than flee its borders in pursuit of stability.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.