Afghanistan crisis: Where will refugees go? What next for them?

As heart-breaking visuals of Afghans risking life and limb while attempting to flee the grip of the Taliban go viral on social media, many a...

As heart-breaking visuals of Afghans risking life and limb while attempting to flee the grip of the Taliban go viral on social media, many are asking the same question: What happens to the refugees? Where will they go? What lies next for them?

The United Nations has estimated that nearly 4,00,000 Afghans have already been forced to flee their homes since the start of this year. This, over the already 2.9 million Afghans that had already been internally displaced at the end of 2020. Some 80 percent of nearly a quarter of a million Afghans forced to flee since the end of May are women and children, as per the UN.

The UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, on Saturday said that it's alarmed by the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, women’s rights activist Malala Yousafzai – who was shot in the head by the Taliban when she was a teenager and has since found a home in the United Kingdom – has in an interview with the BBC urged countries to open their borders.

"My request to all countries, especially the US, UK, and western countries, is that they must protect all those human and women's rights activists right now,” Yousafzai said. "And you know what has happened, you know, we can definitely debate about that. But we also need to talk about the immediate next steps that we need to take. We need to talk more about the solutions right now."

Most of the displaced, sadly, have been unable to leave the country. As per the United Nations, the overwhelming majority of Afghans forced to flee remain within the country, as close to their homes as fighting will allow. Since the beginning of this year, nearly 1,20,000 Afghans have fled from rural areas and provincial towns to Kabul province.

And for the lucky few that manage to slip out of the reach of the Taliban, let’s examine some that have countries that have opened their borders, a few maybes as well as some places that have just flat out refused to accept any refugees:

‘Enormous resettlement programme a priority’, says UK

As per a report in The Times, the United Kingdom is formulating plans to grant safe harbour to those escaping the Taliban regime.  The scheme, which will operate parallelly to the existing asylum system, will be on similar lines as the one for Syrian refugees instituted by David Cameron in 2015, as per the report. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and home secretary Priti Patel are taking the lead on the “bespoke resettlement scheme”, as per The Times.

The UK has already relocated nearly 3,000 Afghans who worked for the UK government since 2014 under the existing Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy. The government had earlier in August vowed to relocate a further 500 families, or 2,500 people, as soon as possible and said there would be no quota or cap on numbers.

This comes just days after Patel dubbed an "enormous resettlement programme" to relocate British nationals, as well as Afghan nationals who have provided assistance to the UK government as a "priority".

"What we are witnessing in Afghanistan right now is absolutely unprecedented … a tragedy is unfolding and a humanitarian crisis emerging," Patel said.

United States to settle refugees on military installations

The defence department has decided to resettle thousands of Afghan refugees on US military installations including Fort McCoy in Wisconsin and Fort Bliss in Texas, Fox News reported Sunday.  Documents obtained by the media outlet show DoD plans to potentially relocate up to 30,000 Afghan SIV applicants into the United States in the immediate future.

Hundreds of Afghan refugees are expected to settle across Texas in the coming weeks, as per NBC. The refugees will have special immigration visas, according to Refugee Services of Texas, the largest refugee resettlement agency in Texas, development director Ashley Faye told the outlet. “They are the men and women who have contracted with the U.S. forces in their home countries and as a result have a target on their back,” she said.

The agency expects to settle at least 330 Afghans in the next few weeks across its offices in Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and Austin. “It's the least that we can do as a country if they have fought for us and sacrificed their lives and their families' lives for us, we can give them a new home,” Faye said.

The Biden administration, which has received a torrent of criticism for botching the evacuation of US citizens and those that aided US-led forces in Afghanistan, had earlier this month announced the expansion of the refugee program for Afghans who worked with the US. The new “Priority 2” category is for Afghan nationals within the US Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) to Afghan nationals and their immediate families who “may be at risk due to their US affiliation”, but aren't able to get a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) because they did not work directly for the US government or didn't hold their government jobs long enough.

A group of 221 people (400 according to a Reuters report) have already arrived in the US, and the remaining will be brought to the US in the coming days, AP reported.

Another 4,000 SIV applicants, plus their families, who have not yet cleared the security screening are expected to be relocated to third countries ahead of the completion of the US withdrawal. AP reported that roughly 20,000 Afghans have expressed interest in the programme. However, Reuters reported that the evacuation effort in Afghanistan dubbed "Operation Allies Refuge" could include as many as 50,000 people or more.

‘Won’t stand idly by’, vows Canada

Canada on Sunday shuttered its Kabul embassy and suspended diplomatic relations Afghanistan. This came just days after the country said it will take in up to 20,000 Afghan refugees including women leaders, government workers and others facing threats from the Taliban. “The situation in Afghanistan is heart-breaking and Canada will not stand idly by,” immigration minister Marco Mendicino told a news conference.

Canada has said it will continue to implement the special immigration program for Afghans who contributed to Canada’s efforts in Afghanistan and further introduce a special program to focus on particularly vulnerable groups that are already welcomed to Canada through existing resettlement streams, including women leaders, human rights defenders, journalists, persecuted religious minorities, LGBTI individuals, and family members of previously resettled interpreters. The programme will welcome government-supported and privately sponsored refugees, along with those sponsored by family already in Canada.

The refugees will include “particularly vulnerable” Afghans still in the country or who've already fled to neighbouring states, which in addition to female leaders and government employees also comprises human rights defenders, persecuted minorities and journalists. Several planeloads of asylum-seekers have departed with the first one landing Friday in Toronto, Mendicino said.

The first batch of refugees who had provided support to the government during its mission in Afghanistan arrived in Canada on 5 August though the exact number was not disclosed.

Canada has said it is monitoring the situation in Afghanistan closely and working with its allies on the ground. "Protecting the Canadian Embassy and our staff is our top priority," said foreign minister Marc Garneau. On Twitter, he said that Canada "owes Afghans a debt of gratitude and we will continue our efforts to bring them to safety."

‘Ready to shoulder share of burden’: Albania

Albania said it was ready on Sunday to temporarily host hundreds of Afghan refugees bound for the United States, including women leaders, government officials and others in danger from the Taliban. "NATO member Albania is ready to shoulder its share of the burden," Prime Minister Edi Rama wrote on his Facebook page.

"Washington has already asked Albania to consider the possibility of serving as a transit country for a number of Afghan political immigrants whose final destination would be the United States," he said. Rama said Tirana had already received requests for Albania to provide refuge for "hundreds of people from intellectual circles and women activists. Afghan women on the Taliban execution lists".

"We will not say 'no', and not just because our great allies ask us to, but because we are Albania," Rama said.

Give us more, says tiny Tajikistan

In July, the tiny nation of Tajikistan said it was ready to shelter up to 100,000 refugees from neighbouring Afghanistan.

Imomali Ibrohimzoda, the first deputy chief of the Committee for Emergency and Civil Defense, said on 23 July that if the number of Afghan refugees exceeds that number, Dushanbe will turn to international groups for help.

Iran adopts wait and watch approach

Iran on Sunday said it has prepared accommodation in three provinces bordering Afghanistan to provide temporary refuge to Afghans fleeing their country. The overwhelmingly country which shares a more than 900-kilometre border with Afghanistan, appearing keen to achieve peaceful coexistence with the Sunni Taliban, seems to have adopted a wait and watch approach.

This, as Iran's new hardline President Ebrahim Rasi said the US military "defeat" in Afghanistan was a chance to bring peace to the country.

Qatar

The US government is in talks with Qatar to draft an agreement to temporarily house thousands of Afghan refugees who worked with the US troops, ANI reported. A CNN report noted that the number of refugees could be as many as 8,000 and if the deal gets signed, the first group of Afghan nationals may soon arrive in Doha.

"We are evaluating all available options. We have no announcements to make on third-country relocation sites for Afghan (Special Immigrant Visas) SIV applicants," a state department spokesperson told CNN. Meanwhile, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby on Thursday said that the US would move approximately 1,000 military personnel to Qatar in order to hasten the processing of Afghan SIV Visa applicants.

India

As per Hindustan Times, the Government of India is mulling granting refuge to Afghan citizens, especially those facing threats or fearing persecution from the Taliban. People familiar with developments, speaking to the newspaper on condition of anonymity, said discussions on the matter were underway though there was no immediate update on the issue of granting visas to Afghan nationals fleeing their country.

Among those who are likely to be granted refuge are political leaders or activists, human rights workers, media personnel, members of minorities and people who have worked with the Indian government,  sources told the newspaper.

Asked about the possibility of India offering refuge to Afghanistan’s Hindu and Sikh minorities at last week’s media briefing, external affairs ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said the government is keeping a close eye on all developments related to the two communities.

“Last year, our mission in Kabul had facilitated the return of 383 members of the Sikh and Hindu communities in Afghanistan. Our mission continues to remain in touch with the Afghan Hindu and Sikh community members and we will ensure the provision of all necessary assistance to them,” he said.

Considering taking in refugees, says Uganda
Uganda said on Tuesday it was considering a US request to take in refugees from Afghanistan, where tens of thousands of people are trying to flee after the Taliban seized power.

President Yoweri Museveni has "expressed Uganda's readiness to provide assistance including temporary hosting of some of the affected persons in the current crisis," the foreign ministry said in a statement.

"Discussions on this issue are still ongoing."

Media reports had suggested that Uganda, already home to the biggest refugee population in Africa, had agreed to take about 2,000 refugees but this was not confirmed in the ministry statement.

"Following the events of last weekend in Afghanistan the government of the United States of America reached out to several of its international partners including Uganda to assist in the likely event of the need to temporarily host some of the Afghans and international citizens that may be evacuated," the statement said.

An official from the UN refugee agency told AFP it had not been involved in the discussions between the United States and Uganda but that it stood "ready to support" any refugees who arrive in the East African country.

Uganda hosts one of the largest refugee populations in the world -- nearly 1.5 million according to the United Nations, mainly from neighbouring South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Most live in large refugee settlements in the sparsely populated north of the country but around 81,000 urban refugees live in the capital Kampala. Aid agencies have repeatedly said that the international response to support refugees in Uganda, a country of about 44 million people, has been underfunded.

Will provide temp shelter, says Macedonia

North Macedonia announced Tuesday it would provide temporary shelter for Afghan refugees fleeing the country now the Taliban have taken control. The Balkan country had committed to taking in 450 Afghan civilians, including women and children, the government said in a statement.

Most of them are Afghans and their family members who worked for various human rights organisations and peace-keeping missions, but also journalists, translators and students. Almost half of the refugees are families of former employees of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), an US non-governmental organisation that operated in Afghanistan.

They expected the refugees to arrive in North Macedonia "by the end of the week", but could not confirm a precise time because of the "complicated situation" at Kabul airport, statement added.

The refugees will be housed in hotels in North Macedonia until they obtain visas to travel to the United States, their stay financed by US and international organisations.

North Macedonia's neighbours, Albania and Kosovo, said on Sunday they were ready to provide shelter to Afghan refugees potentially threatened by the Taliban.

Turkey says no thanks

Already home to an estimated 120,000 Afghan refugees and 3.6 million Syrians, Turkey is at risk of seeing a substantial inflow of refugees.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to increase efforts, both diplomatically and security wise, to prevent an Afghan refugee exodus into Turkey. “Turkey is facing a growing migration wave of Afghans transiting through Iran,” Erdogan said. “We will continue to make efforts to bring stability to the region, starting with Afghanistan.”

Turkey has tightened security its borders with Iran in an attempt to stop the refugees' influx from Afghanistan, media reports said on Sunday. Ankara strengthened security measures on its border with Iran to stop illegal crossings, mainly from Afghans fleeing the Taliban that has taken over key cities and provinces, Afghanistan's Arian News said.

On Saturday, Turkish defence minister Hulusi Akar visited the 295-kilometer long border with Iran where a modular concrete wall is being built, Arian News added.

On Tuesday, foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu talked of "positive messages" coming from the Taliban on protection for civilians and foreigners, expressing hope they would follow through with positive actions.

In no position to take new refugees: Pakistan

Pakistan has repeatedly refused to accept any more refugees.  As per the United Nations, around three million Afghan refugees have been living in Pakistan since the Soviets invaded in 1979.

“As a matter of fact, we are not in position to accept any more refugees,” Pakistan’s National Security Adviser Moeed Yusuf told VOA in a one-on-one interview.     “We are willing to help but we are in no position to take in new refugees this time around. The international forces and the UN should make arrangements for them inside Afghanistan,” Yusuf said.  “The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, should set up camps for the refugees on the Afghan side of the border,” he added.

A senior interior ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told VOA Pakistan plans to settle the refugees in camps along the border with Afghanistan to prevent them from settling in Pakistan in “a worst-case scenario”.

In July, foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said his country, with limited resources, could not be expected to do any more. "It cannot afford to welcome more refugees if the situation within Afghanistan deteriorates again," Qureshi said.

In June, Prime Minister Imran Khan told The New York Times his country would not open its borders to refugees.

Won’t make citizens pay: Hungary

A Hungarian official on Monday criticised the pull-out of American-led forces from Afghanistan and said Hungary will not take in refugees fleeing the country after its takeover by the Taliban.

Levente Magyar, a state secretary with Hungary’s foreign ministry, told state news agency MTI that the government would not make Hungarians pay for the “flawed geopolitical decision” of the US military withdrawal by accepting refugees “without any kind of restrictions.”

Hungary’s right-wing government is a staunch opponent of immigration, and in 2015 built a fence along its southern border in response to an influx of refugees from the Middle East and Africa. That fence would be used to deter a potential wave of refugees from Afghanistan, Magyar said, adding that the government is assessing how it can help those Afghans who have worked as interpreters or in other capacities for Hungarian troops.

On Sunday, more than 60 countries issued a joint statement calling for all Afghans wishing to depart Afghanistan to be allowed to do so. Of the 27 member states of the European Union, only Hungary and Bulgaria did not sign the statement.

EU sends mixed signals

French president Emmanuel Macron said late Monday that his country, Germany and other EU nations would put together a response that was "robust, coordinated and united" to prevent irregular migration by harmonising criteria and showing European solidarity.

"We must anticipate and protect ourselves against significant irregular migratory flows that would endanger the migrants and risk encouraging trafficking of all kinds," he said.

But Macron stressed that France would continue to do "its duty to protect those who are most under threat in Afghanistan".

This, as German chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday called for coordinated, "controlled" EU action to take in the most vulnerable people from Afghanistan after the Taliban regained control over the country. Merkel told reporters in Berlin that people fleeing Afghanistan should be helped first and foremost in neighbouring countries in coordination with the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR.

"Then we can think about, as a second step, whether especially affected people can be brought to Europe in a controlled way," she said after talks with Estonian prime minister Kaja Kallas.

She acknowledged deep, longstanding divisions within the EU on the subject of asylum, calling a "weakness" of the 27-member bloc "which we have to work on in earnest". Merkel's comments came as Germany tried to establish an "airlift" to ferry German citizens and hundreds of Afghan local staff who worked with them out of Kabul to safety.

Marc Pierini, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and a former EU ambassador to Turkey, said Europe was anxiously watching the potential migrant flows after a million people reached its shores mainly through Turkey in 2015 when the Syrian conflict was at its peak.

"Handling this emergency will require a degree of confident humanitarian cooperation between the EU and Iran-Turkey, which will be difficult to achieve," he told AFP.

With inputs from agencies

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