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Protecting Afghan refugees: who is responsible?

Recently, Turkish officials have confirmed that 1,456 undocumented migrants have been detained at Turkey’s border with Iran since 10 July 2021, the majority of which have made their journey from Afghanistan. Turkey is the largest host of refugees in the world with approximately 3.7million, according to the UNHCR. Turkey currently houses approximately 200,000 Afghan refugees, who form the country’s second largest refugee cohort after Syrian refugees.

The growing number of Afghan refugees stranded at the Turkish border is a sign of a much larger issue: since the withdrawal of US and UK troops after twenty years in Afghanistan, the violence between the Taliban and the Afghan military forces has been escalating, leading to a spike in Afghans fleeing their country. Estimates by the UN Refugee Agency state that in this year alone, over 270,000 Afghan citizens have been displaced from their homes, raising the total number of those displaced from Afghanistan to 3.5 million. Over 12% of Afghanistan’s total population now live outside of its borders.

The Journey

Considered by many refugees as the stepping stone to Europe, Turkey is seeing a fresh influx of migrants hoping to cross over into other countries or at least find shelter in Turkey. 23,000 Afghans applied for international protection in Turkey in 2020 alone. However, since many borders and routes are closed, prospects in Turkey have become stagnant. Mahmut Kaçan, a lawyer specialised in immigration and asylum cases commented:

“Afghans end up living in limbo here; they don’t even have basic rights. The UN also stopped resettling Afghans from Turkey to third countries back in 2013, except for extremely vulnerable cases.”

The journey many Afghans are facing is perilous. As with other refugees, women and children are suffering disproportionately. The threat of border defences as well as sexual violence from smugglers or fellow travellers, combined with unsafe and overcrowded transportation puts already vulnerable refugees at great risk. There seems to be a constant influx of news detailing the deaths of refugees and migrants through overturned buses or drownings caused by unseaworthy rubber dinghies, yet most refugees are left with no other choice.

After 20 years of fighting against the jihadist movement in the region, US and NATO troops have made the decision to withdraw, with the deadline for all troops to be gone by 11 September 2021. It is a significant milestone as the grim twentieth anniversary of 9/11.  During his speech announcing the troop withdrawal, US president Joe Biden stated that the US has accomplished its goals to put an end to terrorism that could be aimed at the US from within Afghanistan.

Alongside the withdrawal, the Biden administration has announced it would evacuate Afghans who worked with US forces, while also authorising $100 million from an emergency fund to meet “unexpected urgent” refugee needs. In addition, the US House of Representatives has passed legislation that increases the number of Special Immigration Visas (SIVs) that can be granted by 8000. However, while the US has carried out air raids in recent days to support government forces in Afghanistan, the Taliban claim to be in control of 85% of the country although recent reports show contested territories still undecided in several areas.

Escaping the violence

The Taliban leadership has recently stated that they seek a “political settlement” to the Afghan conflict yet, by their actions, it seems much more likely they intend to capture power militarily, as they have done in the past. 

Mark Milley, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General has commented that after the withdrawal of US troops, the Taliban has gained “strategic momentum” and that he did not rule out a complete takeover.

The Taliban has already made considerable gains in taking over districts in Afghanistan, causing fears of a renewed civil war in the region. Patricia Grossman, associate Asia director at HRW commented on the Taliban takeover, stating:

“Taliban leaders have denied responsibility for any abuses, but growing evidence of expulsions, arbitrary detentions, and killings in areas under their control are raising fears among the population.”

In a UN report published 26 July 2021, it was revealed that during the first six months of 2021 alone, over 1500 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan, almost half of which were women and children. This is classed as the sharpest increase in killings since the UN started recording Afghan civilian deaths in 2009. It is this violence that Afghan refugees are so desperate to escape. The UNHCR says a new wave of internal displacement across the provinces of Badakhshan, Kunduz, Balkh, Baghlan and Takhar comes as the Taliban have moved into rural areas with internal displacement already over a quarter of a million people.

Even Afghan troops are leaving; over a thousand have surrendered their military equipment and fled to Tajikistan after clashing with the Taliban in Badakhshan.

What comes next?

Afghan refugees’ suffering does not end when they flee their country, but also plagues their travels; and then once again when they reach their destination. 

While Tajikistan has already stated that they are preparing to take in up to 100,000 refugees, other countries have been less welcoming. Images have circulated of Afghan refugees being fired at with tear gas at the border of Pakistan and Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister has already stated that Pakistan is unable to handle any more refugees.

While many European countries are still trying to integrate Syrian refugees, those from Afghanistan will struggle to find a hold in Europe. Sebastian Kurz, Austrian Chancellor, has already commented that while he recognises the severity of the situation, “Austria and Germany taking in a large number of people like in 2015 cannot solve Afghanistan’s problems” and that “It seems to us that improving the situation in Afghanistan is the better option”.

While the situation in Afghanistan has been exacerbated by the US withdrawal of troops from the region, solving the issue is not as easy as simply reintroducing military control. Instead the Organisation for World Peace has called on NATO, in cooperation with the EU, to prioritise the funding and development of migration programmes while also calling on foreign ministers of Turkey, Afghanistan, and Iran to do the same. They stated that the current EU deal incentivises Turkey to “serve as a gatekeeper for Europe” by closing its southeast border which rather than allow refugees to be integrated, will lead to more forcible returns.

While protecting and integrating Afghan refugees should be of top priority, the most vital step to helping the citizens of Afghanistan would be the end of conflict between the Taliban and the Afghan government. In order to protect civilians, OWP states that “Both parties need to immediately return to the negotiating table to protect the rights and safety of Afghan citizens”.


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