The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in recent days has brought new dimensions of human suffering and political crisis to what is arguably the most protracted refugee crisis of modern times.
Even before the current emergency, Afghanistan was the source of one of the world’s largest refugee producing populations. It has witnessed over four decades of continuous violent conflict. Over 2.5 million Afghans refugees are registered with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Globally, there are over 4 million Afghan migrants in irregular situations; 90% of the Afghan diaspora is hosted by the Islamic Republics of Pakistan and Iran.
On August 16 2021 the UNHCR issued a non-return advisory for Afghanistan, calling for a bar on forced returns of Afghan nationals outside of Afghanistan, including asylum seekers who have had their claims rejected.
Within the country, 2.9 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) are in need of support. Of these, 550,000 have been uprooted by the Taliban’s military victories since January 2021. Kabul has become a hub for many, stretching the city’s already overwhelmed infrastructure. The UNHCR remains active on the ground.
Since 2001, over 174,000 people have been killed in Afghanistan, including 69,000 Afghan military and police personnel and over 47,000 Afghan civilians. 2,422 U.S. military personnel have also been killed. From 2014 onward, the Taliban's gains were steady, leading to a spike in the Afghan death toll from both Taliban attacks and U.S.-led airstrikes.
Until the dramatic Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, conversations on the effects of the war in Europe have been muted. The post-2015 European refugee "crisis," in which Afghans remain the second highest population seeking asylum after Syrians, has instead centred on deterring migration and enabling deportations. In 2016, the European Union's (EU) agreement on migration and returns with Afghanistan’s National Unity Government (NUG), known as the "Joint Way Forward on Migration Issues," essentially made continued development assistance contingent upon the return to Afghanistan of Afghans refused protection or settlement in the EU.
Critics have long called for a reversal of the policy. The Afghans asylum-seekers I have worked with in Germany have long been fearful of being sent back to Afghanistan. Finally, now, most European countries have now rightly halted their deportation programmes. Shockingly, however, Austria’s government, led by the Österreichische Volkspartei, has responded to the horrific scenes unfolding at Kabul by announcing its intention to continue to deport Afghans as a way to deter a new refugee influx to Europe.
Fear of The “New” Taliban
So far, the “new” Taliban, media savvy, actively engaged in social media, assure a smooth transition to power.
Afghans remain sceptical. The United Nations has issued a heightened threat warning for the country. Many fear that once evacuations of foreign and dual nationals and those Afghans lucky enough to make the evacuation lists have taken place, the real face of the Taliban will emerge.
Many continue to plan routes out of the country.
On the eve of the Taliban entry into Kabul, I spoke on the phone to Muzammil, a 38-year-old employee of a local NGO, husband, and father of two children who lives in the city. “Pray for us. For my daughters.”, he said, adding: “We do not know what comes next. We do not trust what they [the Taliban] say. I wanted us to live in dignity in our country… but now… all I can say is pray.” A few days later, he remained tense. “We cannot breathe. I cannot concentrate on anything. We are waiting for the worst.”
Day one of the Taliban takeover produced, perhaps, the defining—and most harrowing—image of the failings of war in Afghanistan. As a U.S. cargo plane on Kabul airport’s runway was taking off, people were still trying to board the plane; some were clinging on to it for dear life, desperate to flee. Once airborne, shaky video footage shows at least two bodies falling from the sky. 19-year-old Afghan national youth team footballer Zaki Anwari was one of those killed.
Over 600 Afghans were crammed inside the plane itself. Journalist Ramin Rahman, who was among them, told The Guardian that people felt relief as the plane took off. People just wanted to be safe.
Kabul airport remains panicked and busy as people try to board evacuation planes of the U.S., Canada, Germany, and the UK. But getting to the airport through Taliban checkpoints is not easy, and it remains unclear who is eligible for evacuation.
In the past few days I have been exchanging WhatsApp voice messages with 32-year-old human rights activist, Hammad, based in Kabul. Since 2015 he was regularly contracted for NGO work with Canadian and German NGOs, and is now trying to apply for asylum in both countries. But he explained, “I don’t know which scheme I should apply for or how? Some schemes want the references of my former bosses, but they never let us have their emails in the first place. When a project shuts down, the emails stop working too. I’ve been up non-stop trying to understand how and where to apply.” He is gathering together all of his old contracts and any proof of his employment—from pictures with bosses to work-badges—in the hope that an opportunity to seek refuge will present itself.
The U.S., Canada, Germany, the U.K. and others are offering resettlement programmes that will continue post-evacuations. These programmes are crucial: they must be supported, but they must also be improved and made more accessible.
Fleeing by Land: Regional Migrations
In Europe, concerns may be rife about an impending refugee crisis, but the bureaucratic hurdles of North American and European asylum schemes and the geographic proximity of neighbours with a longer history of hosting Afghans mean it is Iran, Pakistan, India, and Turkey that will be the first port of call for many. Hundreds and thousands have already been crossing over into Iran and Pakistan, respectively.
Afghans, however, are fearful of encountering hostile environments in these neighbouring countries and, in the case of Pakistan, possible security threats for ethnic and religious minorities.
Pakistan shares a 2,500 kilometre border with Afghanistan—the infamously disputed and once porous Durand Line. At its peak in the 2000s, over 7 million Afghans lived in Pakistan. Today the country hosts over 1.4 million Afghan refugees. An equal number of unregulated migrants, some 1.5 to 2 million Afghans, also live in the country.
Discussions on hosting new refugees in a contained area near the border have been reported, but it is unlikely this model can be implemented very easily.
Many former residents of Pakistan are already trying to get back to the cities where they still have family. Khizar, a 25-year-old Afghan, was born and raised in Peshawar as refugee. I last met him in Rawalpindi in 2017, a few weeks before he moved to Kabul in search of work. The Taliban’s takeover, however, means he has started preparing for journey back to Rawalpindi where his parents and siblings still live. In a phone call to me he explained, “I have a choice, either wait it out in Kabul or join my family. My parents are worried I will not make it back to them alive if I stay for too long.”
Since the Taliban took power, consular services in Kabul have remained open, providing special visas and permits to journalists, diplomatic staff, and families.
Border crossings of trade and pedestrians at Chaman/ Spin Boldak and Torkham have also remained open for the most part. The Taliban are now manning these borders and there are concerns that people will not be allowed to cross into Pakistan.
Additionally, since 2016 Pakistan has started regulating the border via visas and passports—in order to bypass these routes, some people are trying more irregular routes.
The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has further placed stricter regulations on movement and border closures in recent months, especially at Torkham—as a result Khizar will, for example, like many others move across the Chaman border. Depending on how the pandemic develops in Pakistan, such closures could yet present obstacles to those fleeing Afghanistan.
The government of Pakistan has long emphasised it cannot cope with the numbers of Afghans already in the country—a position that is unlikely to change, unless funding for Afghans in the country improves. As it stands UNHCR in Pakistan has a 50% funding gap.
Pakistan is not a signatory to the United Nations 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees—the main instrument in international law governing refugee protection. In practice Afghans cannot become citizens—the only exception is when an Afghan woman marries a Pakistani man.
In recent years state-led hostility toward Afghans has manifested in routine police harassment and forcible returns to Afghanistan. In 2017 Human Rights Watch has accused Pakistan of engaging in the “largest unlawful mass forced return of refugees.”
Khizar, worries about his return. He explained, “Peshawar was my home, I was born there. But we [Afghans] faced a lot of difficulties from the [Pakistani] police. I worry about going there, but what choice do we have?”
Finally, ethnically Hazara Afghans who are part of the Shia minority may struggle to view Pakistan as a safe country. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reports at least 1,000 Hazaras have been killed in sectarian violence since 2013.
Iran shares nearly a 1,000 kilometre border with Afghanistan. Along Iran’s eastern border with Afghanistan, the country’s interior ministry has ordered border guards to turn away refugees trying to cross and enter Iran. The Covid-19 pandemic has been used to justify this decision.
The country, however, is also preparing to host Afghans in contained areas along the border with Afghanistan.
Iran already hosts 780,000 Afghan refugees and an estimated 2 million unregulated migrants in the country. An additional 60,000 visa holders also live in the country. It is likely that many Afghans will try to reunite with family members already living in the country.
Iran is a signatory to the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol. In practice, however, Afghans cannot become Iranian citizens. Whilst many live in cities and alongside Iranians, many have been subject to well-documented discrimination, hostility, and routine deportations.
In 2018, according to the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) an estimated 373,814 Afghans were deported from Iran’s Herat and Nimroz border crossings. In 2020, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) concluded that Iranian border guards had tortured and beaten a group of Afghan refugees, and had then forced them (allegedly at gunpoint) into the Harirud River. In this incident, 55 people were killed.
Like most of its South Asian neighbours, India is not signatory of the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol. It currently hosts over 15,000 Afghan refugees, mainly in the capital city, Delhi. India continues to be a hotspot for university education and hospitals for Afghans, issuing thousands of visas annually on education and medical grounds.
India has said it will prioritise citizenship of Afghan Hindus and Sikhs and remains unclear on the status for Afghans who are Muslim. This comes on the back of the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) passed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. The Act offers citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis and Christians refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, but says nothing of protection and naturalisation for Muslims. Critics place the CAA in a broader context of anti-Muslim discrimination in India.
Many Afghans in India remain concerned as to what their fate will be in the country.
UNHCR reports there are 116,400 Afghan asylum seekers are residing in Turkey. Since 2011, Turkey has also hosted over 3.6 millions Syrian refugees.
Reports have emerged of a 155-kilometre stretch of a planned 241-kilometre wall having already been erected at the border with Iran, the main crossing point for Afghans into the country, in a bid to deter Afghans from entering the country.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pledged to step up diplomatic and security efforts to prevent an Afghan refugee exodus into Turkey and has offered to work with its ally, Pakistan, to do so.
The country has also engaged in significant deportations of Afghans, with 40,000 Afghans reportedly having been sent back in 2019 alone.
What Next? Immediate solutions
The situation for Afghans is urgent. Despite a number of failings by neighbouring states and those involved in the war in Afghanistan, there is still time to act.
Several concrete steps must be taken immediately:
- Keep borders open for Afghan refugees.
- Enact evacuations with greater purpose, clarity and speed.
- Adhere to the principles of non-refoulement and follow UNHCR advice.
- Keep an international aid presence in Afghanistan—both in rural and urban areas.
- Increase funding for UNHCR, IOM and their local implementing partners in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran.
- Make resettlement schemes for Afghans more navigable, accessible, and fairer.
- Engage with Afghan experts, journalists, academics, and activists in and outside of Afghanistan who can offer insights and guidance to resettlement strategies.
- Encourage Pakistan and India's ascension to the UN 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol; ensure equal treatment of refugees of all ethnic and religious backgrounds.
All names of interviewees have been changed in order to protect their safety.