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The shrinking options for Afghans escaping Taliban rule

‘We’ve got a very short window of time in terms of what we can do for those on the ground in Afghanistan who face real threats.’

Silhouette of a soldier with a military plane in the background and Afghan evacuees on the tarmac. Ministry of Defense of Spain/Handout via REUTERS
Afghan evacuees, their families, Spanish soldiers, and members of the Spanish embassy board a Spanish military plane at Kabul international airport on 27 August 2021.

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As evacuation efforts at Kabul International Airport wind down ahead of the 31 August deadline for the withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan, pressing questions remain about whether and where those fearful of Taliban rule – or looking to escape the country’s overlapping humanitarian crises – will be able to find safe haven.

“Even before the really rapidly evolving situation in the last couple of weeks with the Taliban takeover, we were already talking about sort of a perfect storm brewing in Afghanistan,” Bram Frouws, head of the Mixed Migration Centre, told The New Humanitarian. 

The effects of a severe drought, a slumping economy, the COVID-19 pandemic, and intensifying conflict during the first eight months of the year were already pushing people to leave their homes – and the country – and will likely only be exacerbated by the transition to a Taliban government. There is also uncertainty surrounding how effectively international aid organisations will be able to continue addressing the needs of vulnerable Afghans.

On 27 August, the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, said up to half a million Afghans could flee across land borders by the end of the year in a “worst-case scenario”. Hundreds of thousands have been internally displaced since the US began its pullout in May.

Since 14 August, more than 113,000 people – mostly Afghans – have been evacuated from the Kabul airport by a multinational effort. But hundreds of thousands more who fear retribution because of their ties to the US and NATO presence in the country – or because they belong to groups the Taliban have targeted in the past – are potentially being left behind

The US and other NATO countries say they have received assurances from the Taliban that Afghans who worked with them, and others who are at risk, will continue to be allowed to leave the country after Western troops complete their withdrawal. A Taliban spokesperson said Afghans who have passports and visas will be able to leave “in a dignified manner” when commercial flights resume.

Since taking power, the Taliban has pledged not to carry out reprisals, but reports are already emerging from around the country of homes being searched and people being detained, disappeared, and even executed

Amnesty International released a report on 19 August documenting a Taliban massacre in July of nine men from the long-persecuted Hazara ethnic minority group, underlining concerns that the brutality that marked the Taliban’s rule in the 1990s may soon return.

Read more: Why these Afghan women are speaking out

Many employees of the collapsed Afghan government, members of civil society, and women have gone into hiding

“The fears are very real; they are very genuine at the moment,” Sitarah Mohammadi, deputy chair of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN) and a former Hazara refugee from Afghanistan, told The New Humanitarian.

“We've got a very short window of time in terms of what we can do for those on the ground in Afghanistan who face real threats,” added Mohammadi, who is now based in Australia but still has family in Afghanistan.

With the US and NATO evacuation all but over, it remains unclear how and where people compelled to leave Afghanistan will be able to find safety. 

Only a small number of countries – notably Canada and the UK – have so far launched resettlement programmes for vulnerable Afghans outside of the evacuation process. 

“The vast majority of Afghans are not able to leave the country through regular channels,” a UNHCR spokesperson said in a press statement on 20 August. “As of today, those who may be in danger have no clear way out.”

Here’s an overview of migration and refugee developments in the wake of the Taliban’s return to power. 

Pakistan and Iran

UNHCR has urged Afghanistan’s neighbours to keep their borders open for people seeking safety. But Iran and Pakistan have little appetite for hosting more refugees and have increased security and border protection, according to Frouws. 

Pakistan and Iran host 1.4 million and 780,000 Afghan refugees, respectively – this represents 84 percent of the nearly 2.6 million registered Afghan refugees around the world. Hundreds of thousands of undocumented Afghans also live in each country, which have both forcibly repatriated hundreds of thousands to Afghanistan in recent years. 

“There’s a lot of focus on what’s happening around the airport… We don't know enough about what's happening elsewhere.”

Iran has set up temporary camps to receive Afghans fleeing recent events, but said those who enter the country will be repatriated once conditions improve. 

Pakistan has vowed not to take in any more Afghan refugees. But at least one border crossing has remained open – at least for people seeking medical treatment and those with Pakistani residency permits. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans have reportedly crossed over, some assisted by smugglers. 

However, the overall picture of how many people are leaving the country by land remains murky. “We don’t know the numbers,” Frouws said. “There’s a lot of focus on what’s happening around the airport… We don't know enough about what's happening elsewhere.”

Other neighbours, and the broader region

Afghanistan’s other neighbours – Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan – have historically only welcomed small numbers of Afghan refugees, and that doesn’t seem like it’s about to change. All three countries have increased security and moved more military personnel to their borders with Afghanistan in recent weeks, although Tajikistan previously said it was preparing to temporarily host up to 100,000 displaced Afghans. 

Further afield, the Indian government created a new emergency visa category to fast-track applications for Afghans who want to come to the country. But the announcement sparked controversy over concerns that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party would give Hindus and Sikhs preferential treatment in the process due to a controversial 2019 law that paved the way for refugees from nearby countries to obtain citizenship, but excluded Muslims. 

There are around 18,000 documented Afghan refugees in India, but their legal status in the country is ambiguous because India is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention. 

Turkey – which hosts the world’s largest refugee population – is a more significant destination as well as a transit country for Afghans trying to reach Europe. There are around 117,000 registered Afghan refugees in the country, and likely tens of thousands of other Afghans who are unregistered. 

The process for Afghans to obtain protection in Turkey has become more difficult in recent years, and attitudes towards refugees have soured. Already host to more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees, many in the country are wary – if not outright hostile – to the prospect of large numbers of Afghans crossing the border from Iran. 

Read more: The Afghan refugee crisis brewing on Turkey’s eastern border

In response, Turkey has been fortifying its eastern border, and government officials – who feel the country has shouldered a disproportionate refugee hosting burden compared to the EU – have clearly stated they are not willing to take in more. 

The United States and the EU

Some Afghans who made it onto evacuation flights have started arriving in the United States, Europe, and a range of other countries, from Mexico to Uganda. Many will likely remain in third countries for an extended period of time while their visa applications and resettlement cases are processed. 

Even after the 31 August withdrawal deadline, the United States has said it is committed to continuing to help tens of thousands of Afghans leave the country who are in the Special Immigrant Visa pipeline for their work with the US government or military (along with their families) – as well as Afghans who worked for US-funded organisations and projects and US-based media outlets. The details of how that will work, how long it will take, and how many of those still in Afghanistan will be able to access the pledged support remain unclear. 

“You get this domino effect of countries knowing that if they let in a lot of people, they will not be able to move on.”

In the EU, the arrival of evacuated Afghans to the Netherlands was greeted by protesters shouting extreme racist slogans, but mayors from a number of European cities – and others around the world – have called on national authorities to expand legal pathways for Afghans to seek safety.  

The statements of the EU and EU national leaders, however, have been dominated by a desire to keep Afghan asylum seekers from reaching Europe, reflecting pervasive fears that the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan could spark a repeat of the 2015 migration crisis, which saw one million predominantly Syrian refugees enter the bloc in the course of a year. 

In reality, much has been done since 2015 to make it more difficult for asylum seekers and migrants to reach the EU, including the signing of migration agreements with third countries, such as Turkey, the construction of border walls, and the widespread use by security forces of pushbacks at the EU’s external borders – a practice human rights groups say violates international law. 

Greece, which has been the main entry point to the EU for Afghan refugees, completed the construction of a 40-kilometre wall along its border with Turkey in anticipation of the arrival of Afghan asylum seekers, and the Greek migration minister has said: “Our country will not be a gateway to Europe for illegal Afghan migrants.” 

As with all displacement crises, the vast majority of refugees will remain in countries close to Afghanistan, according to Frouws. But the restrictive rhetoric and policies emanating from Europe have consequences. 

“You get this domino effect of countries knowing that if they let in a lot of people, they will not be able to move on,” Frouws said. “Then they’ll start preventing people from accessing their territories as well. I think that's exactly what we're seeing and going to see more of.”

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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