Week Four: Afghanistan

In partnership with the Department of Migration and Globalization, Danube University Krems


Dr. Jasmin Lilian Diab, Institute for Migration Studies, Lebanese American University

Shaddin Almasri, Department of Migration and Globalization, Danube University Krems


Overview of the Conflict

Afghanistan’s history has been marked by displacement for decades. The 1978 Saur Revolution followed by the Soviet invasion of 1979 marked an initial wave of internal displacement and international migration from Afghanistan to neighbouring Iran and Pakistan, with smaller numbers fleeing into the former Soviet Union. In the fifteen years that followed, more than 20% of Afghanistan’s population had fled the country as refugees. Following the Soviet forces’ retreat from the country in 1989, many began returning to their homeland. The Afghan Civil War (1992-1996) marked the second major wave of displacement in the country, essentially making Afghanistan one of the largest refugee-producing countries in the world. By the year 2000, more than six million Afghan refugees were residing between Iran and Pakistan. Today, they are the third largest group after Syrian and Venezuelan refugees.

Between 2001 to 2021 the United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban-ruled Islamic Emirate. The war concluded with the Taliban regaining power after a close to twenty-year insurgency against allied NATO and Afghan Armed Forces. The war in Afghanistan was the longest war in US history. Following the extension of the target US withdrawal date, the Taliban launched a broad offensive in which they captured most of Afghanistan, finally taking Kabul in August 2021. The re-establishment of Taliban rule was confirmed by the US that month, ending its two-decade long military presence in the country.

Displacement in Numbers

After more than four decades of displacement, Afghan refugees constitute one of the largest protracted refugee situations in the world. There are nearly 6 million Afghans who have been forcibly displaced from their homes. Of those, 3.5 million are displaced within Afghanistan; 2.6 million are Afghan refugees living in other countries. Of the total number of refugees, 2.2 million are in neighbouring Pakistan and Iran. Military actions and violence by the warring factions usually play a major part in the displacement, although there are also reasons for major natural disasters. The Soviet invasion caused approximately 2 million Afghans to be internally displaced, mostly from rural areas into urban areas. The Afghan Civil War (1992–1996) caused a new wave of internal displacement, with many citizens moving to northern areas in order to avoid Taliban totalitarianism. Afghanistan has long suffered from insecurity and conflict, which has led to an increase in internal displacement. More than 240,000 Afghans have were internally displaced following the US withdrawal in May 2021. Tens of thousands more have fled their home provinces since, with numbers currently very difficult to assess.

Realities in Host Countries

The majority of Afghan refugees reside in neighbouring Pakistan and Iran. There are more than 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan. An estimated 300,000 to 400,000 were initially estimated to flee in the wake of the collapse of the internationally recognized Afghan government, however about half of these eventually arrived to a total of 117,000 individuals. Despite facilitating relaxed visa requirements in the form of a free e-visa facility, the Government of Pakistan maintains an official policy not to accept new Afghan refugees: Afghans face challenges in access to registration and documentation after arrival and, between September and November 2021, the state has deported an estimated 1,800 Afghans who were predominantly undocumented. Estimates on the total number of Afghan refugees in Iran vary widely – estimates are as high as 3.5 million, although an estimated 2 million of these are unregistered. According to the UNHCR however, there were 780,000 registered Afghan refugees residing in Iran as of October 2020, most of whom were born and raised in Iran during the last four decades.

Turkey runs a multi-tier protection regime that distinguishes between Europeans and non-Europeans and among the latter, Syrians (recipients of temporary protection) and non-Syrians (recipients and seekers of international protection). An estimated 120,000 Afghans refugees reside in Turkey under the international protection regime; however, there are many more that are estimated to be unregistered due to challenges existing in registering single Afghan men. By some accounts, only a handful of exceptional cases have been registered in Turkey since 2018, coinciding with the government takeover of UNHCR registration of international protection applicants. Turkey also hosts the largest presence of Syrian refugees globally, and the explicit focus of humanitarian and development responses on Syrians has meant that Afghans have been largely left behind in the response. Recently, there has been somewhat of a move towards increased support following the inclusion of Afghans and other smaller refugee groups in major needs assessments.

Over the last three decades, Afghan asylum seekers have consistently made up one of the largest groups of asylum seekers to the European Union – more than 570,000 Afghans have sought asylum in the EU since 2015. While an all-time high in absolute numbers was reached in 2015 during the summer of the so-called ‘migration crisis,’ Afghans are now lodging the highest number of applications in 2022, increasing the number of applications by 72% between August and September 2021 alone. However Afghan refugees have faced challenges and what has been dubbed a ‘two-tier’ asylum system for years, facing hindrances behind crises that have been considered more pressing and proximate conflicts, such as Syria. To this end, only about half of Afghan asylum applications to the European Union are successful – until the last months of 2021, when acceptance rates jumped to 91%. In the same period, deportations of Afghans have also notably halted, although attempts, albeit interrupted, continued as recently as August 3, 2021. Most recently, and as of December 2021, the EU has agreed to take in 40,000 Afghan refugees, the bulk of which were taken in by Germany.

International Political, Legal and Humanitarian Efforts

Scenes of evacuations from Afghanistan took global media by storm – despite this, mass resettlement efforts were few and met with resistance from third countries. Austria at the time declared that it would not accept any new Afghans. The United States on the other hand raised their annual resettlement quota with a focus on Afghan refugees, but with a caveat. This required processing of resettlement applications to the US from third countries. This eventually came to include Qatar and Ukraine, however it prompted an immediate rejection from Turkey, who declined to be “Europe’s refugee warehouse”. The Government of Turkey, supported by the EU, then responded by building a border wall along its eastern border with Iran, through which Afghan refugees often cross. Despite this, global interest in providing support to Afghan refugees culminated in a donor and ambassador meeting in September 2021 to discuss aid to Afghans in Turkey. In 2022, the UN and partners launched a more than USD 5 billion funding appeal for Afghanistan – the largest single country aid appeal ever. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi called for USD 623 million, to support refugees and host communities in five neighbouring countries, for the Afghanistan Situation Regional Refugee Response Plan.