x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Displaced civilians gravitate to Kabul slums

Many migrants lack adequate shelter and as winter sets in they are in crucial need of blankets, fuel, food and access to health care.

KABUL // Battle-displaced Afghans are arriving in Kabul in steady streams and disappearing into the city's mushrooming urban slums, mixing with the mass of poor and evading aid organisations.

Many are lacking adequate shelter, and as winter sets in they are in crucial need of blankets, fuel, food and access to health care.

"Kabul has quite a pull factor for the disenfranchised across Afghanistan, and one of our main challenges is making the distinction between those fleeing conflict and economic migrants," says Grainne O'Hara, the head of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) office in the city.

"Both communities often end up living together in squatter slums across the city," she says. "But their reasons for fleeing are so intertwined with the conflict that it's very difficult to clearly distinguish and single out conflict-driven IDPs [internally displaced people] from the greater numbers of urban poor."

UNHCR says that more than 120,000 people were forced out of their homes by armed conflict in Afghanistan in the past year, and the World Bank lists Kabul as one of the world's fastest-growing cities, with a population that has ballooned - spontaneously and often without any formal planning - from just 1.5 million people in 2002 to at least 4.5 million today.

Hardscrabble slums cling to its craggy hillsides and sprawling shantytowns hug its outskirts, housing a squalid mix of migrants, nomads, displaced and squatters, and typically without the most basic of infrastructure.

According to aid agencies working in Kabul, approximately 80 per cent of the Kabul population lives in informal settlements, abandoned buildings and squatter slums across the city. At least 14,000 Afghans displaced by conflict are scattered across Kabul, according to both the UNHCR and the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation.

The total number of displaced because of poverty, by conflict and natural disasters is almost 500,000, according to official government figures.

No agency or government body has a clear mandate to assist the displaced and analysts say the government is reluctant to admit to the scale of the problem.

"We don't know the real numbers of the displaced, particularly in urban areas like Kabul," says Susanne Schmeidl, co-founder of The Liaison Office, a Kabul-based organisation that works on refugee and displacement issues in Afghanistan.

"If you're the [Afghan] government, for example, and you accept that you have a high number of displaced, there are responsibilities that come with it," she says. "You accept how little control you have over your country."

On Kabul's eastern outskirts is an area called Bagrami, a dusty, bazaar-dominated neighbourhood where more than 100 Afghan families displaced from different areas of the country have established an encampment on a plot of land attached to the market.

Some of the camp residents say they are displaced by heavy fighting in Kabul's neighbouring Kapisa province, which is known to be largely under the sway of the Taliban. But the Afghan government says they are illegally squatting on government land, and should return to an area officials deem safe from insurgent activity.

A handful of the camp residents have taken up menial jobs in the area. In cases such as these, the UNHCR says, it becomes almost a political decision to assist the squatters as conflict-induced displaced people.

Assisting Kabul's poor, Mrs O'Hara says, is outside the mandate of the UNHCR.

"The minister [of refugees and repatriation] blames us for the insecurity," says Molana Enzergul, an elderly man from Kapisa living in the Bagrami camp. "He told us there is no fighting and that we should go back, that we don't belong here."

North of the city, in the Charare Qamber camp for internally displaced, hundreds of families forced out of some of Afghanistan's most dangerous provinces in the south weave between Kabul proper and a village nearby seeking jobs, food, health care and education.

Implementing schemes that would allow for the long-term integration of returning refugees, as well as accommodating new waves of displaced people and the urban poor, places "acute strain" on available services in the city, Mrs O'Hara says.

But others contend that avoiding durable solutions for the displaced in Kabul will have even worse political and humanitarian consequences for the government and for Afghanistan.

"If you ignore the problem [of displacement], there is a high likelihood that the insurgency will fill that void," Ms Schmeidl says. "That's where the danger lies, you create a vulnerable population that can be exploited by the insurgency."