Images of thousands of Afghans desperately trying to flee their country following a hasty U.S. withdrawal have provoked an international outcry.
As of Aug. 22, some 6,000 U.S. troops were working to evacuate U.S. military, American citizens and Afghans who are approved for special immigrant visas. Germany, France, Italy and the U.K. are conducting smaller evacuations.
The pace of these poorly planned evacuations has been slow. They are taking place amid chaos in Kabul, where crowds are being confronted by violence from members of the now-ruling Taliban and U.S. forces, and facing checkpoints that are near-impossible to pass.
As a scholar specializing in forcible displacement and refugees, I see this harrowing scene within a broader context of Afghanistan’s long-standing displacement crisis. This includes an unequal sharing of refugees between the developed world and economically disadvantaged countries.
Muted U.S. role
The U.S. Refugee Act of 1980 standardized procedures for admitting refugees – people who have fled war, violence, conflict or persecution – and put in place a rigorous vetting process. But over the past 40 years, U.S. acceptance rates for refugees have fallen significantly – from 200,000 admitted in 1980 to less than 50,000 in 2019.
Over the past 20 years, the U.S. admitted more than 20,000 Afghan refugees – roughly 1,000 per year. But during the 2020-21 fiscal year just 11,800 refugees from around the world settled in the U.S. – among them were only 495 Afghan recipients of special immigrant visas.
Another 20,000 Afghans are currently in the pipeline waiting for a visa, and 70,000 more are eligible to apply.
For decades, Afghans have also migrated or fled to Europe.
From 2015 to 2016, 300,000 of them arrived on the continent. They were the second-largest group of refugees and asylum-seekers after Syrians. (Asylum-seekers are people seeking refugee status but whose claim has yet to be evaluated.)
The Afghan population across Europe remains small and unevenly distributed, and up until this month, many Afghans faced deportations.
Germany is the largest European host followed by Austria, France and Sweden.
Australia, based on its 2016 census, has approximately 47,000 Afghans who are permanent residents, some of whom began arriving as early as 1979. Another 4,200 have received temporary protected status.
The vast majority of Afghan refugees do not settle in the West.
Prior to the current crisis, at least 3.5 million Afghans remained uprooted within Afghanistan because of violence, political unrest, poverty, climate crisis and lack of economic opportunity.
Pakistan, which shares a 1,640-mile land border with Afghanistan, has long absorbed the largest number of Afghan refugees even though it is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol.
Within two years of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, following a conflict ignited by the rise of the Mujahideen, 1.5 million Afghans become refugees. By 1986, nearly 5 million had fled to Pakistan and Iran.
Since March 2002, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees had repatriated nearly 3.2 million Afghans, but in April 2021, the U.N. reported that more than 1.4 million Afghan refugees remained in Pakistan due to ongoing violence, unemployment and political turbulence in Afghanistan.
Iran also remains a significant host for Afghans, with nearly 800,000 registered refugees and at least 2 million more who are unregistered.
Smaller numbers are in India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey.
As it stands
The latest figures from The Associated Press show that more than 47,000 Afghan civilians and at least 66,000 military and police forces have died in the 20-year-old war.
The security situation in the country had been deteriorating in recent years. According to Brown University’s Cost of War Project, increasing numbers of Afghans have been killed as a result of crossfire, improvised explosive devices, assassinations by militant groups including the Taliban, night raids by U.S. and NATO forces, or U.S.-led airstrikes.
With the Taliban takeover of Kabul, there is growing concern for the safety of women and girls, ethnic minorities, journalists, government workers, educators and human rights activists.
Many Afghans desperate to leave remain outside Kabul and far from any airport.
U.S. evacuations will likely end once all Americans are out of Afghanistan. A few other western countries have committed to taking in small numbers of refugees.
Still, adoption of hard-line policies and anti-refugee sentiment across much of Europe mean relatively few Afghans will find sanctuary on the continent.
Austria and Switzerland have already refused to take in large numbers of Afghans. Turkey, already straining with refugees, said it does not want to become “Europe’s refugee warehouse.”
Ultimately most Afghans able to leave will do so on foot, into Pakistan and Iran. But given that border crossings are difficult and dangerous, the vast majority of uprooted Afghans will remain within Afghanistan.
Their considerable humanitarian needs, economic and political challenges, security concerns and resistance to the Taliban will shape the next chapter of the country’s history.
Tazreena Sajjad is a senior professorial lecturer of global governance, politics and security at American University’s School of International Service. Her column first appeared on the current affairs website The Conversation (www.theconversation.com).