Refugees Magazine Issue 108 (Afghanistan : the unending crisis) - The dilemma of the internally displaced
Refugees (108, II - 1997)
As many as one million people have been internally displaced in Afghanistan in the last five years. This IDP population poses a tricky dilemma for UNHCR.
By Steven Wolfson
In Afghanistan virtually everyone is a victim. Millions of people fled to neighbouring countries in the wake of the Soviet invasion in 1979, producing the largest refugee crisis in modern history. Hundreds of thousands of others also left their burning homes and destroyed villages but they sought safety, not across the frontier in Iran or Pakistan, but in the mountains and secluded valleys of Afghanistan itself. They became a permanently moving population, Afghanistan's internally displaced people [IDPs].
No one knows exactly how many IDPs there are in Afghanistan. An estimated one million have been displaced in the last five years alone. An additional 300,000 people abandoned their homes between October 1996 and July 1997. Many have been forced to flee more than once and some are former refugees who returned from abroad only to be displaced once again.
The IDP population has posed a tricky dilemma for UNHCR for several years. Its mandate does not specifically cover assistance to internally displaced people, but the agency is empowered to monitor refugee return and to try to avert new refugee flows. In the chaotic world that is Afghanistan today, these issues are inextricably linked.
In 1994, as the battle for Kabul intensified, hundreds of thousands of Afghans fled toward the city of Jalalabad and the Pakistani border which the Pakistani authorities quickly closed. Reluctantly, UNHCR agreed to establish an emergency camp called Sar Shahi near Jalalabad and a few months later handed over responsibility to UNOCHA (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance to Afghanistan). It was an uncomfortable role for UNHCR; assisting IDPs within Afghanistan suggested complicity in Pakistan's decision to close the border, curtailing the rights of Afghans to seek asylum, a right which UNHCR was created to protect.
ICRC and a Saudi Arabian NGO, IIRO, established their own nearby camps and, initially at least, this led to problems of uneven assistance levels. The camps also created a "pull factor" for thousands of local Afghans who attempted to impersonate IDPs and receive assistance denied to local communities.
With no clear division of responsibility for IDPs - compounded by competing duties on the part of UNHCR to protect the institution of asylum, monitor the consequences of return, provide emergency humanitarian assistance, prevent refugee movements by addressing root causes as well as avoid unwitting complicity in the various factions' strategies for warfare - the institutional framework for assisting IDPs in Afghanistan remains troublesome and topical.
The recent large influxes of IDPs fleeing to Herat from Badghis Province and from the Shomali Valley to Kabul and various parts of northern Afghanistan refocused attention on the problem.
To minimize any complications, a new cooperation and resource-sharing agreement between ICRC, UNHCR, UNOCHA and WFP was signed in April 1997. Under the agreement, ICRC is designated the "reference" agency for IDP issues in Afghanistan under its general mandate, derived from the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which include responsibility for the protection of civilian victims of armed conflict. In addition, IDP Task Forces, which include the above-named agencies as well as some NGOs, have been established in all major centres in Afghanistan, with the intention that, for as long as the need to provide assistance to IDPs persists, the problems should be dealt with by a cooperative consortium of the best-equipped and most appropriately mandated agencies.
Source: Refugees Magazine issue 108 (1997)