For all the chaos and violence that surrounded it, the just-completed military evacuation operation in Kabul weeks was a stunning logistical accomplishment, ferrying 123,000 Afghan civilians out of the country in a matter of weeks. But the mass flight from the country now under Taliban rule may have only just begun, whether or not the world is ready for it.
“What I am deeply afraid of is that the efforts over the past several weeks, which were significant and substantial, will be regarded as, to use a hackneyed term, ‘mission accomplished,’ ” says Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International and a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for refugees. That would be a tragedy because there are Afghans who will continue to need to flee, as well as millions remaining in Afghanistan who will continue to need humanitarian assistance.
Afghans already represent the world’s third largest residual refugee population—around 2.6 million according to U.N. figures—the result of several waves of displacement triggered by the Soviet invasion of 1979, the civil war of the 1990s, the last period of Taliban rule, and the U.S. invasion in 2001. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that as many as half a million Afghans could flee the country by the end of the year under a “worst case scenario.”
While there have been reports of increased crossings into Iran and Pakistan, NGO officials say the numbers haven’t been overwhelming so far. This may be partly because the Taliban is restricting movements within the country, partly because these countries are tightly controlling entry, and partly because, as Bob Kitchen, director of emergency response at International Rescue Committee puts it, “all eyes are on the Kabul airport right now. Once the 31st arrives, we’ll see what other routes and options people take and may also see what the Taliban’s intentions are.” The airport itself is a question mark. The Taliban insists people will be allowed to leave if they have passports and visas, and is reportedly in talks with Qatar and Turkey about running the facility, but the security situation in Kabul is very much in flux.
The UNHCR estimate could prove to be conservative. There have been an estimated 400,000 Afghan forced from their homes, joining 2.9 million already internally displaced in the country. They have been facing what Kitchen calls a “triple threat” of humanitarian risk: the COVID-19 pandemic, the second-worst food insecurity in the world, and ongoing armed conflict. And that was before the Taliban took over, threatening the country’s small remaining pockets of liberalism, and portending likely violence against women, ethnic minorities, and those who worked with the country’s previous government or foreign forces.
If the “worst case scenario” does come to pass in the coming months, Afghan refugees may not find the outside world all that welcoming. Officials in Pakistan, which already hosts 3 million Afghan refugees, have made clear the country has no wish to “bear the brunt” of a new refugee crisis and may try to keep new arrivals isolated in camps near the border. Afghanistan’s others neighbors have been more quiet about their plans so far, but it doesn’t look like any are eager to let more refugees in.
Turkey, which already hosts the world’s largest refugee population—including 3.6 million Syrians and about 300,000 Afghans—has been building a wall on its border with Iran to block new arrivals from Afghanistan and expelling Afghans already in the country. Under a 2016 deal with the European Union, Turkey has worked to prevent refugees from traveling on to Europe, which has in turn increased political pressure on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to prevent more refugees from reaching Turkey.
As for Europe, governments there are wary about a repeat of 2015, when more than 1 million asylum seekers and other migrants reached the EU from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The 2015 surge exacerbated tensions within the bloc—as southern European countries felt they were bearing a disproportionate share of the burden—and contributed to the rise of far-right political movements in several countries as well as British voters’ decision to leave the union. Officials in Greece has vowed that their country will not, again, become a “gateway” to Europe for asylum seekers. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, the most popular European destination for asylum seekers in 2015, has said Berlin could grant asylum for around 10,000 Afghans, but Germany is also in the midst of an election campaign, and her successors have made clear they don’t want to see a repeat of 2015. Germany and the Netherlands only halted the deportation of Afghans back to the country in mid-August.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who has been pivoting to the right lately ahead of his likely face off against the far right Marine Le Pen in next year’s election, said controversially that France should “protect itself from a wave of migrants” and that “Europe alone cannot assume the consequences of the current situation.”
At a meeting in Brussels this week, EU governments pledged more assistance to countries bordering Afghanistan as a means to prevent a new migrant crisis, though given the attitudes in those countries, it seems inevitable that many refugees will seek asylum farther afield.
In the United States, there’s been bipartisan support for helping those Afghans who directly assisted U.S. forces resettle here, but a backlash to Afghan refugee resettlement is growing on the right. It’s been led by former President Donald Trump, who has said, with no evidence, that the Taliban, “didn’t allow the best and brightest to board these evacuation flights. … Instead, we can only imagine how many thousands of terrorists have been airlifted out of Afghanistan and into neighborhoods around the world.” Biden administration officials have said they believe about 80,000 Afghans are eligible for resettlement in the U.S. (significantly less than the estimated 120,000 Vietnamese who were resettled after the American withdrawal from Vietnam in the 1970s).
Other counties farther afield, at U.S. urging, have also agreed to take in some refugees. Uganda, which hosts a significant number of refugees from conflicts elsewhere in Africa, has agreed to begin receiving flights from asylum seekers from Afghanistan. Mexico has agreed to take in Afghan media workers—somewhat ironic for a country which is itself one of the most dangerous in the world for journalists. A few countries in the Balkans, including Albania, Kosovo, and North Macedonia, have also agreed to host some Afghans at Washington’s request, though these seem more likely temporary solutions than permanent arrangements.
Ultimately, a displacement crisis on the scale of 2015—or previous events in Afghanistan’s own history—may not be guaranteed, but it’s well within the realm of possibility, and the world seems far from ready for it.