Displaced Inside and Outside Borders: The Fate of Afghan Refugees During and Following American Evacuation

Ziad El Jbeily, Research Affiliate, IMS



The American evacuation from Afghanistan yielded a surge of asylum seekers attempting to flee Taliban control. These individuals had experienced a Taliban government between 1996 and 2001, essentially leading them to make a difficult decision; to flee towards an unknown, but hopeful fate. During the final months of 2021 and the beginning of 2022, Afghanistan faced  an alteration of its status quo – a matter that exacerbated the humanitarian crisis further. The fight against radicals in the country by the US and its allies was brought to an end. The evacuation of the US saw the emergence of the Taliban as the new governing organization of the newly formed Emirate. The aftermath of this step is yet to be known. However, the immediate impact of this step on the population was witnessed with haste. Two groups of refugees emerged:  (1) Asylum seekers that fled to the West and neighboring countries, and (2) IDPs who found themselves across different regions of the country.

Western Sponsored Refugees

Nearly six million Afghans have been driven out of their homes and their country by conflict, violence and poverty. It is estimated that 85 percent of Afghan refugees are living in Pakistan and Iran, which continue to host more than 1.4 million and 780,000 registered Afghan refugees respectively. In 2021, violence in Afghanistan intensified and spread through the country.  Conflict forcibly displaced nearly 700,000 Afghans across all provinces. The impact of the conflict on women and girls has been particularly devastating – 80 percent of all forcibly displaced within Afghanistan are women and children.

During the Western administration of Afghanistan, led by the US, there was a large number of Afghan citizens that had either worked for/with embassies, IOs and NGOs as local staff. When the decision to evacuate was made, several Western countries decided to ressettle their local staff. The refugee distribution across Europe and North America post-evacuation is different than that of traditional waves. The resettlement framework of local staff refugees was outside the traditional UNHCR framework. The contribution of Afghan refugee resettlement in Western countries has seen two sides. There are Afghan refugees that have been resettled through UNHCR, and those that have been resettled after the US evacuation. According to UNHCR, countries such as the US, Canada, Germany, and the UK have accepted 95,774, 162,214, 1,162,488, and 298,817 respectively since 1996. These are the numbers of refugees who endured a strenuous process that at times, took years. UNHCR states that the process for refugee status determination requires 18-24 months from the time of registration. However, post-evacuation refugees have larger support and an expedited network. These refugees are airlifted to safe layover locations for processing and have expedited temporary visas for resettlement. An example is the US’ attempt to issue expedited Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) for almost 116,000 Afghans.

Aside from those that had the chance to flee the new reality, some did not cross an international border, and thus, remained in Afghanistan. These are citizens that have found themselves internally displaced within their home country. For centuries, Afghanistan was home to many failed campaigns of political domination. Afghanistan’s geographic and ethno-linguistic pluralistic terrain has always been difficult to navigate by foreign rulers. This led to a history of minimal institutional establishment. Afghanistan does not have the infrastructure across its regions to support its IDPs. The land is rural and lacks the sufficient structural capacities that allows IDPs to survive. As such, IDPs are faced with a recent evacuation of Western administration, the creation of a new Emirate, and little knowledge of what is going to happen next. It is difficult to ascertain the possible outcome for these IDPs. Having to live off the land with minimal foreign or state support, they are left to fend for themselves. Afghan IDPs currently living in Nawabad Farabi-ha camp have recounted the strenuous living conditions they continue to endure alongside 270,000 other IDPs. Economic opportunities are minimal, plastic tents are uninhabitable due to Afghanistan’s heat, food shortages are rampant, and days pass before they have access to food or sustenance.

Concluding Remarks

The relevance of examining these two groups falls in setting a baseline that can be used to assess the protection and resettlement concerns that will arise. The refugee population that lives in and around Afghanistan will remain in an extreme state of economic and political disarray for several years. However, with the help of international organizations and temporary host states, they may be able to either register for resettlement or move on to neighboring countries that will host them indefinitely. Until then, it is crucial to monitor the humanitarian situation, as well as the political and technical trends in order to examine and assess what can be done to ease the refugees’ living conditions.

With the political situation in Afghanistan still unclear, the international humanitarian community must be prepared. The establishment of a new Emirate created a reality of uncertainty. Western countries have evacuated their embassies and even countries such as Saudi Arabia have evacuated their staff. The world is unsure about the Taliban’s political agenda, and what it means for the future of the country and the region. There has been a security vacuum in the region with Russia and China working to assure the safety and security of their own state and geopolitical spheres. What this means for the refugees and IDPs is a long wait for security assurances, democratic proposals, and proper state-building mechanisms to be enacted by the Taliban so as to stabilize and begin rebuilding the state.