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A different kind of pressure: The cumulative effects of displacement and return in Afghanistan

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Displacement in Afghanistan is both a historical and contemporary phenomenon. One in four Afghans have been displaced, and conflict triggered 372,000 new internal displacements in 2018 Attempted peace talks have failed to prevent civilian casualties reaching unprecedented levels.

Despite this bleak picture, however, more than 3.3 million Afghans have returned from abroad since 2012. This study, based on a non-representative survey with 120 displaced Afghans in Kabul, Herat and Nangarhar provinces, examines the relationship between internal displacement, cross-border movements and durable solutions in Afghanistan. It arrives at the following key findings. | Displacement patterns reflect the political geography of the conflict Most displacement in Afghanistan occurs from areas that are heavily contested or under Taliban control toward those with better security. Many of those displaced find refuge in urban centres, where they live in protracted displacement, often in informal settlements. | Limited resources both drive and constrain onward movement The shrinking protection space abroad has altered the profile of Afghan migrants, most of whom now leave in search of employment. Lack of jobs and livelihood opportunities in Afghanistan is a significant driver of cross-border movement. For many internally displaced people (IDPs), however, financial losses incurred during displacement restrict onward travel across borders. | The distinction between forced and voluntary return is blurred A wave of deportations from Pakistan led to hundreds of thousands of premature returns to Afghanistan in 2016. Even in the absence of force, deportation threats, harassment, poor living conditions and a lack of viable alternatives have prompted many Afghans to return. The economic crisis in Iran has accelerated the phenomenon.

Iran has now overtaken Pakistan in terms of numbers of returns. | A holistic response is needed across the whole displacement continuum The majority of returnees from abroad live a life of internal displacement. They are either unable to return to their areas of origin or become displaced again once back in Afghanistan. Despite the adoption of a national policy on IDPs and a policy framework for returnees and IDPs, the response is fragmented. Needs in terms of housing, livelihoods and basic services are significant, and the resulting pressure on hosts risks undermining social cohesion. A holistic response requires an integrated, whole-of-society approach that focuses on affected communities irrespective of their displacement status.