Policy Brief 1: Afghanistan: urgent need for displacement management strategy

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Executive summary

Forced displacement has been an unfortunate but near constant challenge facing millions of Afghans over the last four decades. Throughout this time, armed conflict has been the biggest driver causing countless Afghans to be internally displaced, or fleeing their country in search of safety. To this day, involuntary displacement keeps millions of Afghans away from their country.

The Taliban gaining control of Afghanistan has fueled apprehensions of a new wave of mass displacement and cross-border outflows. The alarm has only grown amid conflicting statements by the Taliban on whether Afghans can leave their country if they so desire. Fears of displacement are tied to a general lack of security as well as worries regarding the state of fundamental rights, treatment of women and religious, sectarian and ethnic minorities, a plunging economy, the specter of a famine and impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Instances of cross-border flight of vulnerable individuals and groups are already being reported. Scenes from Kabul airport in the last days of August have demonstrated the desperation of tens of thousands of Afghans to leave a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The voluntary repatriation of Afghans from Pakistan coming to a near halt in 2021 also reflects the impact of the evolving situation in Afghanistan.

The situation calls for urgent mitigation measures. For Pakistan and indeed for all of Afghanistan’s neighbors, regional collaboration and engagement make all the sense in the world in dealing with a challenge which will, even with an optimistic outlook, likely have a regional impact at least in the short to medium term.

The role that these countries, and indeed the international community, choose to play will determine the scale and trajectory of forced displacement from Afghanistan. First and foremost, every country must use whatever influence it has over the new rulers of Afghanistan to prevent or mitigate largescale displacement. As seems already clear, among others, even some small steps towards extending international legitimacy for the new government in Kabul constitute a powerful leverage.

At the same time, Afghanistan’s neighbors immediately need to have in place clear mechanisms to manage substantial forced displacement. Erring on the side of caution, rather than relying on hope and tough talk, is advisable.

Systems should be in place not just in anticipation of tackling the humanitarian needs of the dislocated populations but also the impact on host communities.

All countries, and not just Afghanistan’s neighbors, should adhere to the international refugee law principles in offering sanctuary to the uprooted Afghans. Even the countries which are not party to the 1951 refugee convention or the 1967 protocol must adhere to the principle of non-refoulment, in line with the provisions of Convention against Torture.

Furthermore, clear engagement of the international community with Afghanistan’s neighbors is urgently needed to assist the latter with the financial burden of hosting large displaced populations.

A number of actors have increasingly spoken of an impending humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan in recent days. There is not be a lot of time left to prepare for the worst-case scenario.

Introduction

Afghanistan has faced all manner of critical challenges in the past 40 years. A near constant armed conflict over this period has left in its wake a large, protracted and omnipresent refugee crisis.

The largest population of Afghans was uprooted following the Soviet invasion of their country over four decades ago. In addition to considerable internal displacement, millions fled the country in search of safety.

To this day, involuntary displacement continues for hundreds of thousands of uprooted Afghans from that original wave and perhaps an even higher number of their younger generations born in the countries where their parents sought refuge.

According to the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, 11% of the world refugee population comprised Afghans in 2020.[1] Most Afghans displaced abroad live in two countries neighboring Afghanistan. As of July 2021, Pakistan hosted over 1.4 million registered Afghans, who were considered “persons of concern” by the UN refugee agency. Pakistan is estimated to be home to another 1.5 million unregistered Afghans as well.

As per UNHCR, in October 2020, there were some 780,000 Afghan refugees in Iran, in addition to 2.6 million undocumented Afghans.[2] For many displaced Afghans, one of these two countries has been the first stop in a long and dangerous journey to other countries and continents in search of safety and a better future.

Early signs of trouble

In that overall context, Afghanistan’s forced displacement trajectory was already causing alarm to countries near and far months before the mid-August 2021 takeover of Kabul handed the Taliban full control of the country.

In July, the UN refugee agency was alerting to a looming humanitarian crisis as an estimated 270,000 Afghans were newly displaced inside the country since January this year, bringing the total uprooted population to over 3.5 million. Large populations had fled their homes, predominantly ahead of a Taliban onslaught for control of various Afghan provinces. It had already been a difficult 2021 otherwise too, with a large number of Afghans facing the impact of serious food insecurity, drought, growing poverty, loss of livelihoods and the coronavirus pandemic.

The UNHCR-assisted repatriation of Afghans registered in Pakistan, which had been had on a steady decline for three years, slowed down to a trickle in 2021. This was despite growing restrictions and often loss of livelihood for the Afghans in Pakistan. The fall in the number Afghans in Iran returning under the voluntary repatriation program was a similar story.[3] Rising violence in Afghanistan in recent years seems to have dampening motivations for voluntary return.

Source: UNHCR

Apprehensions amid Taliban 2.0

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, memories of the last time when the Taliban ruled the country have caused much apprehension over reprisals, as well as concern over fundamental rights, including treatment of women and religious and sectarian minorities.

Chaotic and heartbreaking scenes at Kabul airport in the last two weeks of August left no one in any doubt about the degree of desperation for a large number of Afghans in fleeing the new regime in Afghanistan. Kabul airport was, until the end of August, the quickest and most direct escape route out of the war-torn country.

Leaving seems to have become increasingly difficult since then, as the few airports that have resumed operations are now in firm Taliban control, as are all the official border crossings. Lack of travel documents and even access to cash further complicate things. Taliban flipflopping over allowing any Afghan wishing to leave the country has also not inspired confidence. Some media reports already suggest that human trafficking has risen across the Pak-Afghan border.[4]

Tricky times in a difficult neighborhood

Catering to the needs of a sudden and substantial displaced population in need of international protection would be a challenge anywhere in the world. It is particularly so in Afghanistan’s neighborhood at present. Swayed by law and order, terrorism, economic, political and social concerns, it is a neighborhood with very little inclination for accepting potential asylum seekers or refugees.

A quick glance at the recent stance of the neighboring and other countries for dealing with the anticipated dislocation of Afghans indicates a preference to offer any form of assistance either inside Afghanistan or as close to that country’s border as possible. Walls, actual and metaphorical, seem to be going up. There have been some hints that border closure might also be considered.

Three of Afghanistan’s six neighbors—Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan—are not signatories of the 1951 refugee convention or the 1967 optional protocol to that convention. Any Afghan nationals seeking asylum in these countries would not be entitled to the rights guaranteed under the refugee convention. They would have to live with whatever rights and assistance the host country agrees to extend of its own volition or in agreement with an international organization, such as the UNHCR.

China, Iran and Turkmenistan are parties to the refugee convention and the 1967 protocol. However, historically, these states’ approach regarding displaced populations crossing into their territory has often not been guided by the international refugee law.

In Pakistan and Iran, the two countries hosting the largest number of displaced Afghans, the refugee issue has increasingly been bracketed with law and order, terrorism and national security in recent years.

In Pakistan, the serious recent economic troubles and national elections in less than two years might also make it politically tricky to provide sanctuary to significant number of Afghans. With this wave of Afghans’ displacement, as indeed with previous ones, xenophobia and bad press have the potential to stack the deck further against the displaced individuals. Specific vulnerabilities linked to the displaced Afghans’ religious, sectarian and ethnic identities could have a further bearing on their decision-making and safety concerns in Pakistan.

Voting with their feet – or trying to

In late August, the deputy UN High Commissioner for Refugees spoke of the refugee agency’s contingency planning for outflow of half a million Afghans from their country by the end of 2021. This was cited as a “ worst case scenario”.[5] The UNHCR appealed to all neighboring countries to keep their borders open for those seeking safety.

At the time, the UNHCR did note a recent “small uptick” in the outflow to Pakistan, but added that it had not seen large outflows of Afghans until then.[6]

In September, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees asked Pakistan to accept the new influx of refugees from Afghanistan, indicated that those sent back due to lack of documentation might be at risk.[7]

Pakistan had made its position known on the subject of refugees even before the UNHCR chief’s plea. The Pakistan ambassador to the US is reported to have said: “We are already overburdened by the refugees, and it is beyond our capacity to host any more refugees.”[8]

Accounts of the degree of alarm and difficulty in leaving for some of the most vulnerable Afghans have kept emerging in recent days. A month after the Taliban takeover, footballers from the Afghan national junior girls team and their families crossed into Pakistan after the government issued them emergency humanitarian visas. The footballers were reportedly facing threats from the Taliban due to their involvement in sports. The group — said to comprise a total of 115 people — included 32 footballers and their families.[9]

Many female Afghan judges have gone into hiding for fear of retribution from those they had convicted. A relative of one of the judges was quoted as saying that the sum of their plan to keep her safe was to keep moving her from one house to another. “There is no other way out now. We can’t escape to any other country, even Pakistan,” he said.[10]

As per a displacement trends analysis for Pakistan by the UNHCR,[11] this year at least 2,428 households (10,816 individuals) arrived in Pakistan from Afghanistan between April 1 and September 20. General or specific security threats were cited as the main reasons for flight by 82% of these households.

While the UNHCR analysis noted that 47% of the household were Pashtun, 41% were Hazara with smaller numbers of Tajik (9%) and Turkmen (1%). As many as 81% of the households did not have any family links in Pakistan and 59% reported having no documentation.

Among the new arrivals in Pakistan, the high proportion of Hazaras—who constitute around nine percent of Afghanistan’s population, compared to Pashtuns who comprise 42 percent of the population—fleeing to Pakistan hinted at greater apprehensions among members of that ethnic group over safety under the Taliban rule. As per the UNHCR, all 100% of the households interviewed indicated that they did not intend to return.

Impasse

As with much else related to Afghanistan right now, the trajectory of forced displacement and population outflows also depends largely on how the Taliban rule.

With the United Nations warning of a third of Afghanistan’s population facing the threat of famine,[12] things are certain to get worse, and fast, in the absence of urgent foreign assistance. That assistance appears firmly linked to the Taliban forming an inclusive government and respecting human rights.

Taliban’s last stint in power did not give cause for optimism on either count to many inside or outside Afghanistan.

In the circumstances, largescale displacement and population outflow cannot be ruled out. Events of the past few months alone bear testimony to the situation in Afghanistan aggravating much more rapidly than anyone anticipated. While a large exodus may not seem inevitable just yet, depending on the actions by the Taliban, delay in addressing the humanitarian and rights concerns would only make it more probable as time goes by.

Many countries, and most of all the Afghan population, would dearly hope that the worst-case scenario can be prevented. But hope, as the saying goes, is not a strategy. A workable strategy needs to be urgently devised before the situation snowballs into a full-blown crisis.

The way forward

Despite the enormity of the challenge, the cupboard is hardly bare in terms of possible strategies to mitigate and address the crisis. Afghanistan’s neighbors, western countries which have previously been major destinations for fleeing populations from the region, and international institutions could all call upon lessons from their own and others’ experiences. These may be lessons that are worth emulating and others that must not be repeated.

For a start, regional collaboration and engagement make all the sense in the world when dealing with a challenge which, even with an optimistic outlook, is likely have a regional impact at least in the short to medium term.

In a region not known for forging regional alliances and cooperation on even the most critical of challenges, the need to come together to collectively find a way forward is in itself a challenge for the regional stakeholders.

Yet it simultaneously presents an opportunity. The realization that no single neighbor of Afghanistan can effectively tackle the challenge alone should incentivize a shared resolve. Every country must use whatever influence it has over the new rulers of Afghanistan to prevent or mitigate largescale displacement.

As is already clear, formal recognition of the Taliban takeover, or at least some manner of international legitimacy for the new government in Kabul are powerful leverages. Effective alliances comprising neighboring and other important countries can help improve the lot of the Afghan people and at the same time avert an exodus.

Although a joint approach would be ideal, but at the very least each of Afghanistan’s neighbors needs to immediately have in place clear and well-articulated plans and mechanisms in anticipation of substantial forced displacement. It would be wise for each of the neighbors to err on the side of caution, rather than being mere bystanders relying on hope, bravado and little else. As much as possible, it would be judicious that these policies are based on political consensus and broad-based ownership. That might be particularly difficult in Pakistan with the non-stop divisive rhetoric and lack of engagement among the main political parties since the last national elections in 2018.

Systems should be in place not just in anticipation of tackling the humanitarian needs of the dislocated populations and catering to specific vulnerabilities among those but also the impact on host communities.

Furthermore, it is vital that all countries adhere to the international refugee law principles in offering sanctuary to the uprooted Afghans and not send them back merely over lack of documentation. Even the countries which are not party to the 1951 refugee convention or the 1967 protocol must adhere to the principle of non-refoulment, in line with the provisions of Convention against Torture.

No less pressing is the need for clear engagement of the international community with Afghanistan’s neighbors, in order to assist them with the financial burden of hosting large displaced populations.

A number of actors, including Pakistan, have increasingly warned against an impending humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan in recent days. The UN food relief agency has referred to ‘a humanitarian catastrophe’. Any aggravation of the situation could well lead to not just largescale outflows but also to untold suffering of the Afghans. There is not a whole lot of time left to prepare for the worst-case scenario.

[1] UNHCR Global Trends 2020

[2] Country – Iran (Islamic Republic of) – UNHCR data portal, https://data2.unhcr.org/en/country/irn

[3] Ibid.

[4] Making money out of misery, Dawn, August 19, 2021, https://www.dawn.com/news/1641505

[5] Half a million Afghans could flee across borders – UNHCR, August 27, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/half-million-afghans-could-flee-across-borders-unhcr-2021-08-27/

[6] Half a million Afghans could flee across borders – UNHCR, August 27, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/half-million-afghans-could-flee-across-borders-unhcr-2021-08-27/

[7] UNHCR urges Pakistan to accept new Afghan refugees, Dawn, September 18, 2021, https://www.dawn.com/news/1646942/unhcr-urges-pakistan-to-accept-new-afghan-refugees

[8] Afghanistan: How many refugees are there and where will they go?, August 31, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-58283177

[9] Afghan female footballers evade Taliban, reach Pakistan, September 15, 2021, https://www.dawn.com/news/1646441

[10] Female Afghan judges hunted by the murderers they convicted, BBC, September 28, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-58709353

[11] Pakistan Displacement Trends Analysis, UNHCR: New Arrivals from Afghanistan (As of September 20, 2021). https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/2021-09-20%20Displacement%20trends_Final.pdf

[12] UN agency warns of ‘imminent’ famine in Afghanistan, September 26, 2021, https://www.dawn.com/news/1648449/un-agency-warns-of-imminent-famine-in-afghanistan

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