In the past eight years, refugee return and internal displacement have caused rapid urbanization rates in Afghanistan’s main cities. The phenomenon of urban migration is not new: it follows economic development and demographic transition trends. However, the traditional seasonal migration of largely male individuals has been outgrown by the longerterm settlement of entire families searching for physical and human security in Afghanistan’s cities. In only six years, Kabul experienced a three-fold increase of its population, from 1.5 million in 2001 to 4.5 million in 2007, and estimates reaching over 5 million people today. It has been termed “one of the fastest growing cities in the region.”
The central question of this paper is: How to respond to urban displacement and improve the care and maintenance to vulnerable displaced and returnee populations in Afghanistan’s main cities? While the line between voluntary migration and forced displacement is often blurred at the field level, it remains important to distinguish between migration and displacement given the different risks and vulnerabilities associated with each and the corresponding responses required. As a result, this paper will focus on specific groups that have been made vulnerable through their experiences of return and displacement, namely returned refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). It will not be concerned with other categories of migrants, nor will it be concerned with the return of highly qualified Afghans to their homeland. Although studies have acknowledged that returnees can illustrate successful cases of return and reintegration, “the majority of returnees struggle for survival, are un- or under-employed, and live at or below the poverty level.”3 Secondly, this paper is limited to urban areas, defined as areas in and around Afghanistan’s major cities, including surrounding suburbs and informal settlements located on the outskirts of cities and along peripheral city roads. As such, a broader definition of “urban” will be used, referring to both urban and semior peri-urban areas.