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Four Decades of Afghan Displacement | Afghanistan |

Afghanistan Afghan Refugees in Pakistan Afghan Migration to Germany Afghan Asylum Seekers and the Common European Asylum System The Afghan Taliban and Mujahedin Four Decades of Afghan Displacement

Four Decades of Afghan Displacement

Susanne Schmeidl

/ 16 Minuten zu lesen

After years of conflict-related displacement for large parts of the Afghan population mobility rather than staying put is the norm. Given ongoing social, political, economic and security problems this will not change in the near future.

Makeshift camp for internally displaced Afghans in Kabul. The high level of internal mobility and refugee return is visible in the rapid growth of Afghanistan's cities. (© picture-alliance/AP)

Prior to the 2001 US-led intervention that brought down the Taliban regime, Afghanistan was infamous for being "one of the world’s largest refugee crises [and producers of refugees] for more than two decades" (see Figure 1). Despite concerted efforts to return refugees (post 2001 and more recently since 2016), the country remained the largest producer of refugees and asylum seekers until the Syrian Arab Republic took over in mid-2014. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) , in 2017 two-thirds (68 percent) of all refugees worldwide came from just five countries, with Afghanistan remaining firmly in second place after Syria. This makes the Afghan refugee crisis one of the largest protracted displacement situations in the world.

Protracted Refugee Situations

According to UNHCR, a protracted refugee situation is defined "as one in which 25,000 or more refugees from the same nationality have been in exile for five consecutive years or more in a given asylum country". Refugees in these situations find themselves in a long-lasting state of limbo and are often not able to break free from their reliance on external assistance.

Displacement situations are protracted because no durable solutions (e.g., safe return home, local integration or resettlement abroad) have been found and are unlikely to occur in the foreseeable future. This means that refugees' "basic rights and essential economic, social and psychological needs remain unfulfilled after years in exile".

At the end of 2017, 13.4 million refugees worldwide were in protracted refugee situations. Three million of them had been in such a situation for 38 years or more, among them 2.3 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran.


  1. Ibid, p. 22.

  2. UNHCR (2004): Protracted Refugee Situations. Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Programme, Standing Committee, 30th Meeting, UN Doc. EC/54/SC/CRP.14, 10 June 2004, p. 1. Externer Link: (accessed: 8-10-2018).

Afghanistan’s Displacement History

Figure 1: Overview of Afghan Displacement Numbers (Interner Link: Download figure) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/

Afghans have a long history of using mobility as a survival strategy or as "social, economic and political insurance" for improving livelihoods or to escape conflict and natural disasters. Parts of the Afghan population have always engaged in a nomadic lifestyle. For example, Hazara household migration to Iran has been reported as early as the 1800s. Similarly, Pashtun tribes moved between Pakistan and Afghanistan after the British Empire divided Pashtunistan between the two countries.

The country’s bloody state building process also involved the movement of people (both by force and via incentives) for the sake of expanding the geographic reach of the ruling tribes, while pushing back and fragmenting rivaling tribes and ethnic groups. Some of these relocations under a 'Pashtunisation' policy of Afghan kings led to forced displacement of resettled Pashtuns from Northern Afghanistan by ruling Mujahideen factions during the civil war in the early 1990s and once again post-2001 after the fall of the Taliban.

In more recent history, there have been multiple displacement phases associated with the nearly four decades of civil war that started with the 1978 Soviet-supported coup d’état (Saur or April Revolution). Afghanistan experienced a mix of internal and external displacement during intense conflict periods, return during short periods of stabilization, and often renewed exodus when the conflict re-intensified. At times these movements occurred simultaneously depending on the nature and geographic concentration of threat. The magnitude and speed of these seven mobility phases also varied (see Table and Figure 1). During most phases external displacement was much larger than internal. This trend is perhaps slowly changing due to increasingly limited options for Afghans of being granted asylum in a foreign country.

As a result, until the most recent displacement phase starting in 2015, as many as one in two Afghans have had at least one (many multiple) displacement experiences , with most families having relatives or friends abroad. Therefore, Afghan life is strongly shaped by a "culture of migration" , where mobility rather than staying put is the norm and for some young men even a rite of passage. All this has created extensive networks and a rich repository of knowledge about migration routes, costs and destinations that prospective Afghan movers (migrants, asylum seekers etc.) can draw upon.

Forced Migration Trends in Afghanistan after the Withdrawal of International Troops in 2014

As anticipated by many observers, the political, security and economic transition that occurred in Afghanistan during 2014 accelerated internal and external displacement and migration , with a visible spike during 2015 and 2016. The following three displacement trends can be observed since 2014:

  1. Acceleration of asylum seeker flows to Europe in 2015 and 2016 before slowing in 2017; refugee figures in Iran and Pakistan staying roughly constant;

  2. Steady-growth in internal displacement;

  3. A new wave of returns (not all voluntary) since late 2016, especially from Pakistan and Iran, but also from Europe.

This simultaneous in- and outflow of people highlights the protracted conflict situation in Afghanistan. There are little promising signs that this situation and associated forced migration will change any time soon.

Apart from conflict migration, Afghanistan is also well-known for frequent natural disasters such as floods, avalanches, landslides and earthquakes. These lead to recurrent displacing of about 200,000 individuals per year. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that from 2 January to 8 October 2018 251,207 individuals had been displaced due to natural disasters (a majority by drought), affecting 27 out of 34 Afghan provinces. Many of these displacements, however, are temporary with people returning home once the situation is resolved.

Caution about Numbers

The security situation in Afghanistan, as in any country in conflict, is volatile, thus making access to exact statistics difficult. Furthermore, a population on the move is particularly difficult to account for, although methods have improved over time. OCHA notes that "constrained humanitarian access hinders assessments, thus preventing verification of the full extent of displacement". Furthermore, many displacement situations are highly politicized and become a rather "fluid conceptual terrain" as to who is counted and in what category (e.g., refugee or internally displaced person (IDP) vs. irregular migrant).


  1. OCHA (2018): Afghanistan: Conflict Induced Displacements (as of 31 October 2018). Externer Link: (accessed: 2-11-2018).

  2. Schmeidl S. (2016): 'Deconstructing Afghan Displacement Data: Acknowledging the Elephant in the Dark'. Migration Policy Practice, vol. 7, pp. 10–16, p. 12. Externer Link: (accessed: 2-11-2018).

External displacement by Afghans

Figure 2: Afghan Asylum Seekers in Selected European Countries (Interner Link: Download figure) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/

External displacement by Afghans – especially those seeking asylum in Europe – saw a spike in 2015, possibly encouraged by the Syrian mass exodus in that year. According to UNHCR, nearly one million Afghans (962,000) sought asylum between 2015 and 2017 worldwide; with the highest numbers reported in 2016 (369,000) and 2017 (334,000).

Of the total of about 260,000 asylum seekers in 2015, according to UNHCR, nearly two-thirds (181,400) sought asylum in the EU according to Eurostat (more than four times as many as in 2014), with Hungary, Sweden, Germany and Austria being the top recipient countries. Although figures have been on the decline for the past two years (2017, 2018 to date), Afghans remain the second largest group of first-time asylum applicants in Europe.

Germany is the top country where Afghans lodged asylum claims in 2015 and overall for the last four years (2015-18, about 187,355 in total), followed by Hungary (58,940 in total), Sweden (46,675 in total) and Austria (42,240 in total). Greece largely functioned as transit-country, though considerable numbers still remain.

In 2015, actual arrival of Afghans was higher, at least for Germany, where about 154,000 Afghans arrived, with the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees only managing to register 31,382, with the remainder appearing under 2016 asylum figures (127,012).

Germany received the largest number of Afghan asylum seekers for three reasons: 1) its initial ‘open door’ policy and reported opportunities to register and be accepted as asylum seekers, 2) existing networks (Germany has the largest Afghan Diaspora community in Europe) and 3) increasingly tighter border controls in other EU asylum countries (e.g. Sweden).

Among non-EU countries, Turkey attracted the majority of all Afghan asylum applications between 2015 and 2017: 362,000 in total, with more Afghans applying in 2017 (157,000) than the previous two years (90,000 in 2015 and 115,000 in 2016) (see Figure 2).

Afghan refugees (or Afghans in refugee-like situations) continue to be hosted primarily (about 90-95 percent) by Pakistan and Iran. The figures remained more or less constant (1.4-1.5 million in Pakistan and about 950,000 in Iran) between 2015 and 2017 despite considerable returns.

Internal displacement

Figure 3: Overview of Conflict-Induced Internal Displacement in Afghanistan (Interner Link: Download figure) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/

Internal displacement in Afghanistan has been steadily on the rise over the past years (see Figure 3), with approximately 384,000, 675,000 and 510,000 individuals forced to flee their homes during 2015, 2016 and 2017 respectively. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) estimated the total number of IDPs in Afghanistan around 1.3 million at the end of 2017. Furthermore, return of IDPs has been well below the anticipated numbers, challenging previous assumptions that conflict-induced displacement would only be temporary.

As of 25 December 2018 another roughly 350,000 had fled their homes due to conflict, with 32 of 34 provinces reporting at least some level of forced displacement. An ongoing drought complicated the situation, seeing another 81,000 individuals leaving their homes. This puts the total number of IDPs in Afghanistan at approximately 1.8 million, or possibly higher based on a recent survey by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The third round of IOM’s Afghanistan Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM) Baseline Mobility Assessment found already 1.7 million IDPs in 15 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces surveyed (home to an estimated 50 percent of the Afghan population).

According to a recent report, many of Afghanistan’s IDPs are secondary displaced refugees and undocumented migrants who return "to war instead of peace". This is consistent with IOM’s 15 province survey finding that "one in six people is either a returnee or an internally displaced person" totaling 3.5 million.

Though internal displacement in Afghanistan remains ongoing, Afghanistan only accounts for a fraction of the worldwide estimated 5.2 million new conflict-induced internal displacements in 2018, ranking in 8th place.

Refugee return

Refugee return has once again been on the rise since 2016 signaling that safe havens for Afghans in the region are shrinking. While Iran and Pakistan have been hosting Afghans fleeing conflict or seeking employment for decades, both countries have been showing signs of "refugee fatigue". This reflects the disproportionate burden they bear after more than three decades of hosting the majority of Afghan refugees.

Figure 4: Overview of the Return of Afghans from Pakistan and Iran (Interner Link: Download figure) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/

After overall refugee return to Afghanistan slowed in 2006, Pakistan and Iran stepped up pressure on Afghan refugees to return home after 2014, though initially focusing on undocumented Afghan migrants only (see Figure 4). During 2016, the pressure from Pakistan mounted, forcing 373,000 registered refugees and 693,000 undocumented Afghans to leave the country (see Figure 4). This million was joined in 2017 by another 610,000 returnees (60,000 registered refugees and 550,000 undocumented Afghans). According to Human Rights Watch, this forced return amounted "to the world’s largest unlawful mass forced return of refugees in recent times".

Pressure on Afghans to return to Afghanistan has also been on the rise in Europe. Many European countries were overwhelmed with the number of refugee arrivals. Increasing anti-immigration sentiments and populist politics had "adopted a hard line against Afghan asylum seekers". European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) data indicate that the percentage of asylum recognitions for Afghans has been on the decline since 2015, most drastically in Norway (from 82 percent in 2015 to 35 percent in 2017). Eurostat data indicates that for some countries an average of 40 percent of Afghan asylum seekers have been denied in 2017, with the rejection rate being nearly 80 percent in France (mirroring that of Sweden); with lower numbers elsewhere (e.g., 35 percent in Germany, 36 percent in Italy, and 20 percent in Belgium). Some sources estimate that as many as 400,000 Afghans have been denied Asylum in Europe since 2015. Although return statistics from the EU are patchy, Amnesty International estimates that about 3,300 Afghans were returned from Europe in 2015 and another 9,600 in 2016. The New York Times, citing Afghan officials, speaks of 17,000 forced returns from Turkey in the first half of 2018.

It must be acknowledged that some Afghans might have fled (and returned) more than once over the past decade, but when combing those that had returned until the end of 2013 (about 5.7 million Afghans) with more recent returns (voluntary or not), the figures are close to 10 million. That is by no means a small feat for a country that is struggling on multiple fronts (politics, conflict, security). Furthermore, a lot of returnees are not returning home, but to cities where they perceive security and service delivery to be better.

Trend: Urbanization of Displacement

The high level of internal mobility and refugee return is visible in the rapid growth of Afghanistan's cities. The capital Kabul is the biggest draw-card, absorbing nearly half (49 percent) of all internal migrants. Nangarhar province in the East of the country at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border (with its capital Jalalabad) is the second largest destination, especially for IDPs and recent returnees. Similarly, Kandahar in Afghanistan’s South has absorbed many people that were forced to leave Helmand and Uruzgan provinces during fighting in 2017.

The 2015 State of Afghan Cities report estimated that about eight million Afghans (one in four) live in cities, a figure that "is expected to double within the next 15 years and reach 50 percent of the total population by 2060". Given most IDPs and returnees over the past three to four years have moved into cities, current figures of the Afghan urban population might be already close to 10 million – approaching the 50 percent mark sooner than anticipated.

As cities struggle with absorbing the rapid inflow of rural-urban migrants, internally displaced people and refugee returnees, it is estimated that as many as 70 percent of people moving into cities end up in informal settlements, which are essentially urban slums. It is here where they blend with the urban poor and live in crowded and difficult conditions lacking adequate access to education, health care and employment.

Displacement Drivers and Future Prospects

Post-2014, the conflict in Afghanistan has once again been intensifying, and Afghans face a great deal of uncertainty about the viability of life in Afghanistan. There are concerns over political stability and the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, with Afghan civilian casualties rising every year, hitting an all-time high in mid-2018 and 70 percent of the population expressing concerns over personal safety. In addition, the country is facing multiple challenges identified in the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, including poverty, hunger, access to education and health care, (un)employment, inequality, sustainable cities, and perhaps above all peace, justice and strong institutions.

All these factors combined shape "the conditions, circumstances or environment within which people make choices whether to migrate or not, or have such decisions thrust upon them." At present, it is unlikely that the situation in Afghanistan will drastically improve, with displacement trends set to continue, although perhaps new destination countries need to be explored given the tightening situation in Europe, Iran and Pakistan. With 64 percent of all Afghans under the age of 25, Afghanistan has one of the youngest populations in the world. It is exactly these young Afghans that are the most disenchanted with a country that seems to be moving nowhere, especially since traditionally their voices are not heard. Thus perhaps unsurprising a 2017 Asia Foundation Survey found that two-thirds of all Afghans would leave their country if they were given the opportunity to do so.

Left with little future prospects many young Afghans may feel there is little that would keep them in Afghanistan, other than not being able to afford the journey abroad or decreasing options to gain entry into desired destinations countries. In other words, future displacement trends from Afghanistan will largely be shaped by lacking exit options. This means increasing internal displacement (including secondary displacement by forced returnees) until new opportunities for refuge open up or the security situation in country improves.

Overview of Afghan Displacement Phases

Time PeriodConflict EventMigration Pattern
BaselineMigration for jobs, both internally and externally. Both short-term seasonal as well as long-term.
Phase 1 (1978–1989)Saur revolution bringing to power the People's Democratic Party (PDPA); subsequent war of Mujahideen against Soviet-backed government; withdrawal of Soviet Army (1989).- Mass exodus abroad, steadily rising post 1979 and reaching its peak of over six million in 1989.
- Internal displacement on the rise, starting in 1985.
Phase 2 (1990–1995)Continued war against the Communist Government which is defeated in 1992. Civil war prompted by disagreement over power-sharing among Mujahideen parties and chaos in many parts of the country. Taliban join into the war in 1994 making advances and conquest by 1995.- First big refugee return-wave starting slowly in 1989 and peaking in 1992 when it is reported that about 1.2 million refugees returned home within a period of six months. About three million refugees returned to Afghanistan between 1989 and 1993: 2.5 million in 1992/3 alone.
- Internal displacement rises again after 1993-94 as civil war rages (focusing on Afghanistan’s cities, especially Kabul) and continues until the Taliban come to power in 1996. Much of the internal displacement (especially within cities) is never reflected in IDP figures which stay constant at around one million for several years.
- New exodus abroad, though offset by return numbers.
Phase 3 (1996–2000)Taliban seize control of Kabul in 1996, harsh Taliban rule follows.- Renewed refugee return, though smaller in numbers (only about 900,000).
- Internal displacement once again on the rise, and renewed exodus from the country (some Afghans leave for the first time). Internal displacement soared further in 2000, when the worst drought in thirty years hit Afghanistan, causing massive livestock losses among the nomadic Kuchi population, prompting many to shift to a more sedentary existence – often in Pakistan.
Phase 4 (2001–2002)Post 9/11 bombing and US-led intervention to remove Taliban government; Northern Alliance takes Kabul.- About 1.5 million Afghans flee within a few weeks due to US aerial bombing and ensuing ground combat.
- Internal displacement of Pashtuns targeted in revenge attacks in North and West Afghanistan.
Phase 5 (2002–2006)Bonn Peace agreement, transitional authority, new government.- Largest UN-assisted refugee return in recorded history; about five million in total, mainly between 2002 and 2005.
- At the same time, the majority of Afghanistan’s 1.2 million internally displaced persons also returned home, widely assumed to have satisfactorily reintegrated.
Phase 6 (2007–2014)Government increasingly loses legitimacy, insurgency resurges, security situation deteriorates and violence on the rise.- Refugee return slows, about one million still return between 2006-8, ‘only’ 427,561 did so between 2009-13.
- Insufficient reintegration of refugees adds to growing internal displacement. UNHCR profiles IDP population first in 2008. By mid-2014 the IDP count had reached nearly 700,000, half were displaced since at least 2011, at a rate of about 100,000 per year.
- Renewed exodus emerges.
Phase 7 (2015–present)Political (elections) and security transition leads to a drastic deterioration of security as well as economic situation. Neighboring countries Iran and Pakistan step up (refugee) return.- External displacement on the rise again with 962,000 Afghans seeking asylum between 2015 and 2017.
- Steady growth of internal displacement, estimated at about 1.8 million in 2018, with an average of about 450,000 a year.
- About four million Afghans return (or are returned to Afghanistan), most from Pakistan and Iran (but also Europe).

Compilation by Susanne Schmeidl.

This article is part of the Interner Link: Country Profile Afghanistan.

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Dr. Susanne Schmeidl is a Senior Lecturer in Development Studies at UNSW Sydney. A trained sociologist, she has researched drivers of conflict and forced migration for over two decades with a particular emphasis on Afghanistan.