Afghan refugees crisis: Collective international action need of the hour

The Afghan conflict has already turned shelterless a massive number of people, and it will not end until a morally inclined humanitarian intervention takes place, write Azeemah Saleem and MD. Imtiyaz for South Asia Monitor

Afghan refugees protesting outside UNHCR office in New Delhi

Afghanistan has a history of violent conflict. Due to its location as a geostrategic buffer and substantial natural and gas resources, the country has become a proxy for global and regional power politics. The developments of the last 40 years have landed the Afghan refugees in one of the largest and most protracted displacement situations.

With a large number of Afghan children born in exile, neighboring countries such as Pakistan and Iran have seen third-generation Afghan refugees. After the recent ascendancy of the Taliban, around 2.9 million people have been internally displaced. The worsening poverty, the impact of Covid-19, and the overthrow of president Ashraf Ghani's government by the Taliban resulted in a massive internal and cross-border displacement.

The existing data show only three percent of the Afghan refugees could return home. The recent internal political instability and the role of the external actors have triggered a serious refugee crisis in the region. The massive refugee crisis is the outcome of global and regional policies, with the national interests getting hinged to the interests of one or the other global power. Since the 1979 Soviet invasion, Afghanistan has experienced immense political, social, and economic instability, leaving millions of people displaced, impoverished and distraught.

The Mujahedeen uprisings against the Soviets, Pakistan’s armed interventions, growth of the Taliban, all combined to make Afghanistan the hub of many fundamentalist organizations. The US intervention since 2001 further complicated the situation, adding to the refugee crisis.

The lack of security undermined people’s living standards, while the oppressive rule, lack of political legitimacy, divisive and indecisive international politics led to more displacements for the last 40 years.

Need for international co-operation

The departure of the US military forces, the rise of Taliban 2.0, and the collapse of the Afghan state have once again aggravated the situation. The Afghan refugees now constitute the third-largest displaced population after those from Syria and Venezuela.

The vast majority of Afghan refugees live in Pakistan and Iran, as documented by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 2019. Over the past 20 years, as the situation normalized following the ouster of the first Taliban regime, many Afghan refugees returned home, while others remained in the neighboring countries and other parts of the world. According to UNHCR, around 6 million people were forced to flee due to the conflict, violence, and poverty.

The recent footages of huge queues outside the passport office before the Taliban took over Kabul, the desperation to leave the country evident through the rush at the Hamid Karzai International Airport, and the deadly blasts close to the airport, bring out the vulnerability of Afghan people, and their desire to go elsewhere for a better and secure life.

The neighboring countries such as Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, India, and distant lands like the US, Canada, and Germany are hosting these refugees.

However, the crisis has raised two critical questions. Firstly, one needs to analyze the internal and global politics and policies that have caused the humanitarian crisis. Secondly, the extent up to which the host society is economically, socially, and culturally capable of hosting refugees may be studied. The ongoing complexities, the differential attitudes and behavioral patterns, the lack of a tolerant attitude for multiculturalism, and the exhausting economic capabilities have put the host societies in a tight position regarding the intake of refugees.

Some of the neighboring and previous host countries have already refused to accept the influx of Afghan refugees in their territories. Pakistan's National Security Advisor Moeed Yusuf has said in a recent interview that "Pakistan will allow setting the refugee camps on the Afghan border, but will not allow them to get inside Pakistan's territory". Similarly, Turkey's foreign ministry has expressed its inability to take any more refugee load as it was already hosting the most number of refugees in the world.

The Afghan conflict has already turned shelterless a massive number of people, and it will not end until a morally inclined humanitarian intervention takes place. There is a need to put a check on the Taliban’s oppressive rule and carry out peaceful negotiations for a politically stable and peaceful Afghanistan.

There is an immense need for global collective action and humanitarian intervention to stop the horrific chaos in the urban areas and people's displacement in Afghanistan after its government's collapse.

Role for international organizations

International organizations can be key players in resolving the hostility between two states or of internal conflict as well. There is an intense need for UNHCR to develop a concrete plan to accommodate the people getting displaced in Afghanistan. The UNHCR is now being labeled as a pawn of states because of its failure to intervene properly.

UNHCR, on its part, has claimed it is highly concerned about the ongoing situation in Afghanistan and the people’s movement at both internal and cross-border levels. According to the UN agency, the 200-odd Afghan refugees to Iran, who fled from Nimruz province, have been taken care of. While UNHCR’s role in short-term assistance for the refugees cannot be denied, Amnesty International is doing its bit on a longer term.

A report was published by Amnesty International in June 2019 on Refugee Day based on interviews of Afghan refugee returnees to their native land. The returnees claimed that the host states did not welcome them, and they have not returned out of willingness but as an exercise of deportation. One of the returnees explains his situation as highly vulnerable as he said in an interview to Amnesty that "I do not live in one place now that I am back. We keep relocating in the province, as it is not safe for me. I live alone so that my family stays safe; I do not want to put them at risk."

Need for collective action

The lightning collapse of the Afghan state has not allowed the civilians to find a protected shelter for themselves. Already the ouster of the Ashraf Ghani government by the Taliban has forced people to be displaced either internally or cross-border. Given the circumstances, the number of the displaced will only go up, and to an overwhelming figure.

There is an urgent need for collective global action to help the Afghan refugees.  There is an urgent requirement of an umbrella organization of international humanitarian agencies such as UNHCR and Amnesty International to help the displaced population find relief in such harsh and challenging conditions. However, on the broader international forum, it has also become equally important to deal with the root cause of refugee emergence along with the accommodation process.  

(Azeemah Saleem, a doctoral candidate, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, can be contacted at MD. Imtiyaz, a doctoral candidate at the Department of Political Science, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, India, can be contacted at views are personal)

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