What lies ahead for Afghanistan's newly displaced refugees?

Faced with a daunting, precarious future, what will become of Afghan's latest wave of refugees?
6 min read
27 August, 2021
The Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan has caused many of its citizens to flee in panic, fearful of what life will be like under Taliban control. With the events of the past weeks causing a fresh influx of Afghan refugees, how will they be received?

Since early this year, many Afghan families have been on the move due to violence and instability. Even before the Taliban assumed power in Afghanistan, as many as 60,000 displaced families had already reached the capital city in search of safety. And as soon as Kabul fell, hordes of people thronged the airport to fly out of the country and get asylum in the West.

On Thursday, two powerful explosions hit Kabul airport where thousands had gathered hoping for a flight out of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Evacuation flights resumed with new urgency on Friday, a day after the two suicide bombings left at least 95 Afghans dead. The US said further attempted attacks were expected ahead of Tuesday deadline for foreign troops to leave, ending America’s longest war.

According to data gathered by the United Nations, 550,000 Afghans have been newly displaced within the country since January 2021 – out of these around 80 percent happen to be women and children. And if the incoming Taliban government cannot win the confidence of the masses, a further exodus of people can be expected in the days ahead.

Afghanistan’s displacement crisis is one of the largest and most protracted in UNHCR’s seven-decade history

Noting the gravity of the situation, the UN refugee agency has termed the ongoing Afghan migration as one of the largest protracted refugee crisis as it symbolises four decades of displacement.

After Syrian and Venezuelan refugees, Afghan refugees are currently the third-largest refugee population in the world and these numbers could grow if the outflow of refugees does not cease.

Observing the impact of continuous unsettlement on Afghan families,  Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, observed that, “Afghanistan’s displacement crisis is one of the largest and most protracted in UNHCR’s seven-decade history. We’re now seeing a third generation of Afghan children born in exile.”

Even then, many governments are not welcoming these refugees with open arms anymore.

Here are the main reasons:

Where Turkey is concerned, it already has four million refugees, out of which 3.6 million refugees are from Syria. Having become the world’s largest host of refugees, Istanbul just cannot take any more and a massive concrete wall has been constructed on the border to prevent any new flow of refugees.

In this matter, Turkey does not wish to oblige even the European Union (EU).

Faced by harsh criticism at home over his handling of the previous refugee crisis, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has  recently said that, “You cannot expect Turkey to take on the responsibility of third countries.”

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Next, there is Iran and Pakistan.

Still hosting 85 to 90 percent of Afghan migrants from conflicts in the 80s and 90s decades, Islamabad and Tehran have no further capacity to take any more. Ever since it came under US economic sanctions in 2015, Iran has encouraged its two million undocumented and more than 80,000 registered refugees to return home.

Having three million Afghan migrants, Pakistan has been doing the same, but with less success than Iran. Until quite recently, both the countries had also kept their borders closed with Afghanistan.

Proactively, Tehran has now started preparing temporary camps for refugees in the border areas of three of its provinces. However, the new arrivals will be urged to return home as soon as possible. As Hossein Ghassemi, the interior ministry border affairs chief, has elaborated, any Afghans crossing over into Iran would have to be repatriated “once conditions improve.”  

It is unclear where Afghan people will find refuge, being almost a forty-year conflict, there is so much baggage left over from previous decades that there is hardly any space left for any new migrants

Having opened up some border check-points, Islamabad plans to follow Iran’s example and restrict new refugees strictly to border areas. According to Fawad Chaudhry, the Federal Information Minister, a comprehensive strategy is being prepared to prevent large numbers of refugees from going further into Pakistan.

Nevertheless, if any mass exodus begins, it could still head in the direction of neighbouring countries like Pakistan, Iran or Turkey. Even though other countries in South Asia or the Middle East hardly have any Afghan refugees.

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Finally, there are the Western countries.

Most Western countries are not willing to accept too many large groups. While the United Kingdom (UK) and Canada are willing to take around  20,000 refugees each, Australia has refused to take in refugees in the thousands, citing security concerns.

Having elections in the days ahead, France and Germany are trying to stay clear of refugee controversies and are more focused on avoiding a domestic backlash like in the 2015 refugee crisis.

According to media reports, around 500 to 2000 Afghan refugees are still managing to reach Turkey daily. Also, reaching Europe is not easy, as Gerald Knaus, founding chairman of the European Stability Initiative (ESI) has pointed out, “This massive crisis doesn’t mean people reach Europe. To reach Europe, you need to cross a lot of borders which are very much harder to cross today than they were a few years ago.”

People stay in a tent after leaving a plane arriving from Afghanistan at Rinas Airport in Tirana [Getty Images]
As the tide of anti-refuge sentiment in the West coincides with the latest crisis in Afghanistan, will refugees feel welcome in a hostile Europe and North America? [Getty Image]

Therefore, while many Afghans are in a panic to get out of their country, many states in the region and beyond are getting even more panicked about a potential refugee influx.

Where the US is concerned, 81 percent of Americans are in favour of taking in Afghans that assisted their military, but progress remains slow and the candidates remain in Qatar or Kuwait for vetting and screening processes. Around 50, 000 to 60,000 Afghans are to be brought to the US and nearly 40,000 have been rescued.

Advising against lengthy paperwork, InterAction, an international coalition of nonprofit organisations with a focus on poverty and human rights, has stated that, “Requiring at-risk Afghans to first become internationally displaced before applying for visas further endangers the Afghan people.”

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Meanwhile, the Taliban have refused to extend the August 31 deadline for the evacuation of people that helped foreign consulates or were working for global NGOs.

In fact, according to UN representative, Caroline Van Buren, nearly 20,000 to 30,000 people are leaving Afghanistan every week. She says, “We are now seeing a large number of people leaving Afghanistan: flights are full and these people, of course, are people who have travel documents, we are able to get visas, who have residency permits in other countries. But now we’re also seeing a trend of people who are moving in an irregular way, people who are fleeing for their own safety without travel documents and they are much at risk for exploitation.”

Therefore, it is unclear where Afghan people will find refuge, being almost a 40-year conflict, there is so much baggage left over from previous decades that there is hardly any space left for any new migrants.

Apparently, Washington is mulling over alternate options for housing any new onslaught of refugees from Afghanistan. The likely new destinations could be Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan or even Qatar, according to some media reports.

Sabena Siddiqui is a foreign affairs journalist, lawyer and geopolitical analyst specialising in modern China, the Belt and Road Initiative, the Middle East and South Asia. 

Follow her on Twitter: @sabena_siddiqi