What the world can do to solve the Afghan refugee crisis

Children running to take cover as the heavy dust and the wind pierce through the Nawabad Farabi-ha IDP camp.  © UNHCR/Edris Lutfi

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Khalid Koser, Executive Director, Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF) & Keire Murphy, Junior Associate, Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF)


  • Since 14 August 2021, about 120,000 people have been evacuated from Afghanistan.
  • It is estimated that about 250,000 Afghans have become internally displaced since the beginning of May 2021.
  • In 2020, more than 800,000 refugees returned to Afghanistan from Iran alone. They and millions of other returnees are now at risk of being displaced again.

The evacuation of foreign citizens and Afghan allies from Kabul has been done under a tight deadline and the risk of terrorist attacks. Since August 14, 2021, about 120,000 people have been evacuated by countries around the world.

But thousands remain, mostly local Afghan staff, journalists, and human right activists.

The situation still poses serious challenges. The foreign nationals returning to their countries will have to deal with the trauma that surrounded the evacuations, those who could not get out in time need alternative exit plans, and Afghans who are being hosted in countries like Qatar will have to be permanently resettled.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to allow the relative success of the evacuation to distract attention from the far greater demands of displaced and mobile Afghans.

Internally displaced persons

One group is internally displaced persons (IDPs). These are people displaced within their own country. It is estimated that about 250,000 Afghans have fled their homes since the beginning of May, bringing the total number of IDPs in the country to about 3.5 million – the third-highest worldwide.

In addition to seeking commitments that the new Afghan leaders will not provide haven to international terrorists, the international community will need to work with the Taliban to manage the IDP crisis.

IDPs represent the most pressing humanitarian emergency in Afghanistan today and meaningful solutions to address the situation should be high on the agenda. This is important because large numbers of IDPs can undermine security, economic growth, and social cohesion.

Refugees

If the initial promises of the Taliban to respect women’s rights and allow political pluralism and dissent are to be believed, we are unlikely to witness a mass exodus of Afghan refugees.

This may also be the case because many Afghans who would be at particular risk of persecution by the Taliban – especially the Hazara minority – had already fled in the 1990s, during the Taliban’s previous regime.

This doesn’t mean that the Hazara who are still in Afghanistan are not at risk. In fact, Amnesty International recently released a report detailing the Taliban’s brutal massacre of Hazara men in July 2021.

More prosaically, when it comes to displaced Afghans, Afghanistan’s neighbours may not allow them in.

But at the same time, many of Afghanistan’s borders are difficult to police. This means that movement of refugees is possible. Indeed, millions of those who fled the Taliban in the 1990s returned to Afghanistan during the years that US troops were on the ground. In 2020, more than 800,000 returned from Iran alone. These populations are now at risk of being displaced again, in particular considering recent reports of renewed persecution, including executions, of Hazara in areas controlled by the Taliban.

Preparations for a new wave of refugees have already begun. The US has set aside $500 million for urgent refugee needs, and nearly 100 countries have pledged to accept refugees.

These are positive developments, but does not mean that the wave of anti-migrant sentiment has reversed.

For example, Turkey has stepped up construction of a border wall with Iran to keep Afghans out; and the European Union (EU) and many of its member states want to avoid a repeat of the 2015 migrant crisis where more than a million migrants and refugees crossed into Europe, leaving countries struggling to cope with the influx, and creating division in the EU over how best to deal with resettling people.

It becomes clear, therefore, that greater political pressure needs to be brought to bear on the Taliban to allow refugees to cross borders, on neighbouring countries to admit them, and on other countries to host them. The solutions to the current crisis must be of a more permanent nature if the dignity and rights of fleeing Afghans are to be protected.

Durable solutions

Neighbouring Iran and Pakistan have adopted a hard line against hosting Afghan refugees because they already host 3.5 million and 1.5 million Afghans respectively. Many of the refugees were fleeing the Soviet invasion of 1979 and then the first Taliban regime in the 1990s.

Because durable solutions like integration, resettlement, and repatriation have not been deployed effectively, some of them have been hosted as refugees in both Iran and Pakistan for over 40 years. With new refugees arriving, there is need to rethink approaches to displaced populations.

The favoured solution for refugees is repatriation. Before the current crisis, Iran, Pakistan, and the EU wanted Afghan refugees to be repatriated to Afghanistan. But considering the situation at hand, it is now important to secure a guarantee that Afghan refugees will not be forcibly returned to their country. The international community must also accept that voluntary repatriation is unlikely to occur at any scale for the foreseeable future.

How is the World Economic Forum helping to improve humanitarian assistance?

With more than 132 million people worldwide requiring humanitarian assistance, humanitarian responses must become more efficient and effective at delivering aid to those who need it most.

Cash assistance has been recognized as a faster and more effective form of humanitarian aid compared to in-kind assistance such as food, clothing or education. Cash transfers give more control to their beneficiaries, allowing them to prioritize their own needs. They also have a proven track record of fostering entrepreneurialism and boosting local economies.

When the UN Secretary-General issued a call for innovative ways to improve cash-based humanitarian assistance, the World Economic Forum responded by bringing together 18 organizations to create guidelines for public-private cooperation on humanitarian cash transfers.

The guidelines are outlined in the Principles on Public-Private Cooperation in Humanitarian Payments and show how the public and private sectors can work together to deliver digital cash payments quickly and securely to crisis-affected populations. Since its publication in 2016, the report has served as a valuable resource for organizations, humanitarian agencies and government leaders seeking to increase the effectiveness of humanitarian aid and advance financial inclusion.

Learn more about this project and find out how you can join the Forum to get involved in initiatives that are helping millions of lives every day.

An alternative is to resettle refugees permanently in richer countries. Canada has pledged to resettle 20,000 new Afghan refugees, while Australia will resettle 3,000. But these are spots in their existing resettlement quotas meaning that Afghans will take the place of refugees from other countries. The UK plans to resettle up to 20,000 Afghans in the long term, including those it has already evacuated. While all this is laudable, resettlement numbers are likely to remain low.

Another solution is integration, that is, providing a pathway to citizenship for refugees. Iran and Pakistan have historically resisted this option and are likely to continue to do so. But they should be urged, at the very least, to grant specific rights to refugees, including the right to work. This would reduce the impact of displacement on host communities and governments.

Asylum seekers

The Afghans who are in the most precarious position are asylum seekers who have not yet been granted refugee status, rejected asylum seekers who have been denied refugee status, and undocumented migrants who are not just in neighbouring countries, but also in Turkey and Europe.

As recently as August 2021, six European countries signed a letter encouraging fleeing Afghans to return home, despite the Taliban gaining ground and pleas from the Afghan government to halt returns because of growing insecurity.

Some of the countries have since backed down, but there is still political pressure for the return of Afghan asylum seekers to their country. This is partly due to the fact that Afghanistan is one of the top three countries of origin for asylum seekers in Europe and has been for the past few years.

Role for the Afghan diaspora?

There are an estimated 150,000 Afghan Americans, 85,000 Afghan Canadians, and 50,000 Afghan Australians who need to exert pressure on their governments to protect IDPs and refugees, respect international law, and unlock durable solutions.

If the international community is as serious about the wider consequences of recent developments in Afghanistan as it has been about evacuating citizens and allies, then the hard work really begins now.

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