The International Community Must Develop a Well-Coordinated Protection Strategy for Afghan Refugees
There is no doubt that many Afghan citizens will need protection in the weeks and months ahead. What remains shrouded in uncertainty, however, is the magnitude of need and where to offer that protection. From neighbors, mainly Iran and Pakistan, to Western countries that have played a role in Afghanistan for the past two decades, perspectives on the unfolding crisis will differ. But all face the same challenge: Offering humanitarian protection that shields those fleeing persecution while being sustainable for host societies.
An Uncertain Displacement Horizon
With the volatile context in Afghanistan and at its borders, data on refugee movements are outdated before the ink is dry. Still, it is known that the armed conflict has internally displaced more than 550,000 people since January. And in the run-up to the Taliban takeover on August 15, tens of thousands of Afghans crossed into Pakistan and Iran.
How many more join the exodus will depend in large measure on how the Taliban leadership rules and whether initial promises regarding amnesty for those who worked with foreign powers or the previous government, the continued right for girls and women to education and work, and the formation of an inclusive government will actually occur. Some reports already cast doubt on whether the Taliban leadership in Kabul can ensure that reality outside the capital.
Economic conditions also may drive departures, with the national currency at a record low, significant employment having been tied to the international presence and foreign investments, and the already devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
And finally, Taliban repression of groups such as ethnic and religious minorities or women and girls could spur migration. Those already displaced within Afghanistan by decades of conflict may be most likely to opt for international movement, having already made that first, difficult step of leaving home.
Securing protection for internally displaced persons (IDPs) and international refugees now rests on the shoulders of the international community, especially after 20 years of foreign presence in Afghanistan. As many government leaders have declared, it is an act of shared humanity to offer refuge and the opportunity to lead a dignified life to displaced Afghans. Translating word into deed will prove more complicated, however.
With history marked by protracted refugee situations and several continents still recovering from badly managed displacement crises, political leaders are acutely aware of the electoral implications of chaos at their borders and possible backlash at the acceptance of large inflows of refugees. There also are fierce disputes between states as to responsibility and burden-sharing.
What is needed now is a swift, well-resourced, and well-coordinated strategy by international and key national leaders to carve out a global protection space for Afghan refugees and IDPs. Such a strategy is necessary to prevent a repeat of the stark political and societal fallout that the Syrian refugee crisis triggered for Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey beginning in 2011, as well as for Europe in 2015-16.
The Makings of a Joint International Strategy
The first key pillar is to generate a protection space within Afghanistan. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has repeatedly warned of humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and is calling upon donors to help address the needs for Afghan civilians, especially IDPs, including access to shelter, basic health care, and food. Two days after the Taliban takeover, the European Union (EU) declared that humanitarian aid to Afghanistan would continue, while more structural aid would be temporarily frozen. What financial support will humanitarian actors receive from Europe and the rest of the international community, and how swiftly will those resources be disbursed? And what integration options are there for IDPs if return is not an option?
With the Taliban leadership having called upon the international community to continue its support rebuilding Afghan society, there may be opportunities for international actors to keep respect for human rights and gender equality as key topics for any upcoming negotiations.
The Second Pillar for a Protection Strategy
The second pillar of protection must include fortifying refuge in Afghanistan’s neighborhood. Most of the Afghan refugees who have fled over the past four decades remain within the region. Pakistan hosts 1.4 million registered refugees; Iran is home to nearly 800,000; and Turkey hosts about 420,000, of whom 300,000 do not have legal status. Even those who are registered as refugees face limited rights in these three countries.
The international community is seeking to secure agreements with Pakistan, Iran, and possibly Turkey to protect already present refugees and any new arrivals. Some European leaders already dream of an EU-Turkey statement 2.0 that would include an Afghan component, granting Afghans a similar status to Syrians, including the politically charged right to work in Turkey. The ease and frequency with which this regional protection strategy is put forward by EU leaders belies the fact that the obstacles to securing such deals are rife and the odds for success low. While it remains to be seen how one strikes an agreement with a country under international sanctions (Iran), Pakistan frequently reminds the international community that the promises of financial support it has been given for hosting Afghan refugees for the past 40 years have never fully materialized.
Countries in the region will be on the lookout for signs of solidarity from the rest of the world and can be expected to be hypersensitive if such support does not materialize. Beyond diplomacy, humanitarian aid, and development support, Afghanistan’s neighbors will be closely watching to see what protection efforts the European Union, the United States, and others take vis-à-vis Afghan refugees.
The Necessary Third Pillar
The creation of a protection space beyond Afghanistan’s neighboring countries is what will likely make or break this regional plan and ultimately determine the degree of firefighting that Europe and locations further afield will see on the migration front in the months and years ahead. This third pillar will need to draw on two main components, more resettlement spots for Afghan refugees and an unwavering commitment to review claims for protection of those who reach borders beyond the immediate neighborhood.
This realization seems to be trickling down, even if only partially. In recent days, EU leaders such as Commissioner Ylva Johansson have started to refer to the need for legal and safe pathways to protection for Afghan refugees, and the necessity to prepare for future scenarios at Europe’s borders. Yet government leaders seem to be dragging their feet to make bold statements about resettlement or the protection of Afghans already on their soil or those who will arrive spontaneously in the future. Countries such as Germany and Austria, which host 148,000 and 40,000 Afghan refugees respectively, are not keen on seeing those numbers rise. Austria declared that more safe pathways for Afghans could send “the completely wrong signal,” while Greece announced the completion of a fence at its border with Turkey and vindicated its borders will remain “inviolable.”
On the U.S. side, the extremely messy evacuation of Afghan interpreters and others who worked with the U.S. government was further complicated by the Biden administration’s apparent insistence on sending many to third countries, where they will remain pending processing of their visas to come to the United States. How many Afghans the U.S. will manage to evacuate in the coming weeks and how many families could land directly in the U.S. remain largely uncertain. For the ones who are sent to one of the countries that agreed to temporarily shelter Afghans – Albania, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Uganda, and Colombia, for instance – how long will they have to wait before they can start their new life in America?
Near-term policies that keep Afghan refugees confined to the region surrounding Afghanistan may be short-lived and generate backlash from host communities in these countries. As a result, they may trigger a string of smaller and bigger refugee crises in the years to come, especially if Afghans have to engage in further onward movement to escape difficult conditions in their countries of first asylum. The international community has ample evidence of the long-lasting pains that ad hoc and fragmented migration management can impose on refugees and countries of first asylum, transit, and destination alike. Given the magnitude of the crisis, it has much to gain from a focused strategy to secure a global protection space.