The scene of the US evacuation plane in Kabul airport, surrounded by hundreds of Afghans seeking to escape the control of the Taliban sent a clear message about the new wave of Afghan refugees that will strike neighbouring countries first and spill over into Europe. The thought was rejected by some European politicians because Europe wasn’t ready to withstand a second wave of refugees after the one it endured in 2015.
The crisis of Afghan refugees is by no means recent. It was caused by the withdrawal of US forces and clearing the path before the Taliban in order to control the country. The crisis of Afghan refugees dates back to 1979 after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which turned into a 10-year occupation that rendered nearly five million refugees homeless in neighbouring countries.
The Problem Persists Despite International Efforts
The latest reports by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees indicated that in worst-case scenario in the current conditions that Afghanistan is going through is that about 515,000 people will cross the borders of neighbouring countries.
Stressing that the phenomenon of Afghan asylum will not stop in the short term, UNHCR data shows that the number of Afghan refugees reached 2.6 million registered in more than 25 countries around the world by the end of 2020, including more than 2.2 million refugees in Pakistan and Iran, approximately 85 percent of the total Afghan refugees, in addition to 3 million other refugees in both countries, although not registered as refugees.
Despite the UNHCR efforts to return the Afghans to their country within the framework of a program of voluntary return, possible material assistance continued to be provided to ensure their stability again. However, with a simple comparison between the numbers before and after the implementation of the program, it is clear that the change in the number of Afghan refugees was not as large as predicted, as their number was 2.6 million refugees in 1996, the number continued to increase until it reached 3.6 million refugees at 2,000 and decreased to 3 million refugees in 2010 until it reached 2.6 million refugees by the end of 2020.
As the figure shows, there was about a million Afghan refugees between 2000 and 2020, but this number differs greatly from what the UNHCR announced its success in returning 5.3 million refugees to Afghanistan during the same period; and this can be explained in two ways: the first way is that there is a large gap between the actual numbers of Afghan refugees and the official numbers, the second way is that the Afghan refugee waves did not stop during that period, which weakened the impact of international efforts in this regard.
Causes for Immigration and Asylum-Seeking from Afghanistan
Despite the international efforts that lasted for years to return Afghan refugees to their country, their numbers did not change much, indicating that they continued to migrate and seek refuge in neighbouring countries, due to the following reasons:
- Continuing armed conflict:
Armed conflict was and still is one of the main reasons of the migration of Afghan citizens who have not been spared the scourge of armed conflict over the past 40 years or more, as Afghanistan moved from the Soviet invasion in 1979 to internal conflict and civil war between Islamic parties and mujahidin groups after the overthrow of the regime of Muhammad Najibullah at 1992, to the Taliban taking over and declaring Afghanistan an Islamic Emirate in 1996, to the US-led invasion of NATO in 2001, only to end up under Taliban rule once again. Despite the efforts of the United Nations throughout these years; the international efforts were not sufficient to protect the lives of Afghans. Estimates indicate that the number of those killed in the period 1979-1992 ranged between 500,000 and 1.5 million dead. As for the period of the internal conflict, there is no confirmed statistics about it, but the number of deaths is estimated at tens of thousands. Regarding the period of American intervention, that lasted twenty years, the number of deaths exceeded 200 thousand on all sides. The continuation of armed conflicts has turned most of the Afghan territory into a breeding ground for terrorism, arms and drug trafficking, which caused the displacement of citizens either to other areas inside Afghanistan or across the borders with neighbouring countries.
- Exacerbation of the food shortage crisis:
The armed conflict left another crisis which was in the form of food shortages that caused famine. In 2001, Christian Aid indicated in official report that 600 people died in northern Afghanistan due to starvation and malnutrition. At every stage of the conflict, there was great difficulties in getting food, fuel and humanitarian aid into the conflict areas, which was stated in the (3631) session of the Security Council that was held on February 15, 1996, and it was also confirmed by the data of the World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization ( FAO), as these data indicate that more than 14 million Afghans (almost a third of the population) suffer from food shortages, and 2 million children suffer from malnutrition. Reports of international organizations have placed Afghanistan among the three countries most vulnerable to food shortages and needs urgent intervention.
- Drought and climate change:
The matter stops at armed conflicts and the food crisis, but also included a severe drought crisis that hit the country at April 2000, affecting 12 million Afghans, and then another drought crisis in 2018 that caused displacement of more than 250,000 citizens to other areas due to lack of water and weak agricultural production, and continued till this year, it threatens more than 3 million Afghans. For this crisis to be the straw that broke the back of those seeking the survival of the Afghans under these dire circumstances. The three previous factors are the most prominent reasons for the migration of Afghan citizens or their asylum to neighbouring countries searching for their basic human rights, but it is not possible to stop at these reasons only, there are other reasons, such as the Covid-19 that has lasted for a year and a half, and the fragile economy that is standing on the verge of collapse.
How do Afghan refugees live?
Some may believe that the asylum of Afghan citizens to other countries can provide them with a better standard of living in the light of the deteriorating conditions in the country; therefore, Afghan refugees can be divided into three categories:
– The first category represents (15 percent) of the total number of refugees living in Europe and enjoying a better standard of living as the countries in which they live implement plans to integrate them into local communities through schools, universities and workplaces, but some of them are still facing one or more forms of discrimination and racism.
– As for the second category, which represents (30 percent) of the total number, they live in Iran (96 percent of them are in cities, and only 4 percent are in 20 refugee camps). Iran issued identity cards to registered Afghan refugees, guaranteeing them freedom of movement, access to work permits, access to the education system and access to health services. On the contrary, unregistered refugees (three times as many registered) face difficult life conditions, as they are unable to work, do not enter schools or hospitals there, and can be deported at any time.
– The third, and largest, group representing 55 percent of the total number live in Pakistan, where they face harsh conditions in obtaining educational, health services, and obtaining an appropriate job opportunity, as the data indicate that the percentage of Afghan refugee children of school age and they do not get an educational opportunity in Pakistan, which reached to 80 percent, and the percentage of refugees who are able to read and write there are only 33 percent, and this may be due to the high rate of illiteracy and drop-outs among the Pakistani community itself, or the weak number of schools available to Afghan students, which are only 153 schools in 54 refugee villages. It is not only the poor quality of education that Afghan refugees receive in Pakistan, but the same goes to the health services they receive through international aid programmes. Also, finding decent work or setting up small businesses is difficult for Afghan refugees, which forces most of them to work for daily wages that does not guarantee them a better situation than they face in their country.
Political pressure card
Although European countries combined have only 371,000 Afghan refugees, which represent less than 15 percent of Afghan refugees in the world and only 10 percent of Afghans applying for asylum in Europe, the recent crisis raised Europe’s concern about the repercussions of a new refugee crisis following the one of 2015.
The European position was clear. The French President Macron refused to accept Afghan refugees or illegal immigrants, saying that Europe must protect itself from bearing the consequences of the situation in Afghanistan alone. Austria also demanded the establishment of refugee centres and camps in the countries neighbouring Afghanistan. In all cases, no European country will receive more than 20,000 Afghan refugees according to a specific time plan. Countries such as Iran and Turkey may exploit the Afghan refugees as a political pressure card on the United States and Europe to achieve political and economic gains in the light of the circumstances both countries are going through. Where Iran can resort to use refugees to ease sanctions or receive humanitarian aid that contributes improving the internal conditions, after it established a group of temporary camps for Afghan refugees in three provinces on the border, to be returned after the situation stabilizes.
As for Turkey, it can repeat the scenario it implemented with the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015, after confirming that it had received about half a million illegal immigrants from Afghanistan between 2014-2020, the Turkish president also refused to allow “Turkey to be a warehouse for refugees and migrants heading to Europe.”
In conclusion, the reality on the ground in Afghanistan indicates the future exacerbation of the refugee crisis in light of the Taliban’s control of the country and its expected conflict with other groups. This will lead more Afghans to seek an opportunity to live outside the borders of their country, to continue their suffering, which has been ongoing for more than 40 years, especially in neighboring countries, while the world continues to bear the heavy cost of providing humanitarian aid worth billions of dollars, and to combat ideological extremism resulting from the deteriorating humanitarian conditions in which these refugees live.