Afghanistan: when migration is the only lifeline available all efforts must be ensured to provide safe passage

The recent withdrawal of international troops from Afghanistan after nearly 20 years of foreign-led intervention has left the country grappling with intensified violence, conflict, and humanitarian crises. Over the past few weeks, resurgent Taliban forces have taken over the country at lightning speed, displacing hundreds of thousands of people across Afghanistan, and forcing many to flee in search of safety and security to countries such as Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey.

With the takeover now all but complete, Taliban rule is fast becoming a reality for the people of Afghanistan and 20 years of fragile progress, particularly with regards to women and girls’ rights, is steeped in uncertainty. Despite the Taliban’s calls for Afghans to remain in the country, chaotic scenes at Kabul airport and at land borders show the fear that people face as they scramble to flee the country via any means available to them.

Even in the months and weeks leading up to Taliban takeover, migration journeys have become more costly and dangerous as demand for smuggler services have increased, and routes have become more remote in order to avoid detection from hardline immigration officials and to bypass Taliban-occupied border check points. With land and air routes currently closed, regular routes out of Afghanistan are no longer an option. Therefore, it is vital that all efforts focus on ensuring a swift reopening to allow those stuck in Afghanistan, and at risk of retribution by state and non-state actors, to leave by the safest means possible.

While migration will continue to be the only lifeline available for many Afghans, limited legal protections, prospects and opportunities await in neighboring countries. As the crisis reaches a critical point, return to Afghanistan is also no longer feasible, leaving many – both those newly displaced from Afghanistan, as well those already living in neighboring countries – with limited options and in situations of protracted displacement and exile. While EU governments raise concern over potential rising numbers of Afghans entering their borders, the reality is that the large majority of displaced Afghans will continue to be hosted within the region. Emphasis should thus be on addressing the unfolding protection crisis in the region – with increasing funds allocated to host countries for urgent humanitarian assistance and support – rather than on a potential increase of asylum seekers to Europe. Further, neighboring countries and the EU, must cease deportations, and pushbacks at their borders while providing migration pathways and resettlement options for those stuck in desperate situations.

An ecosystem of displacement drivers – intensified conflict, economic downturn and environmental disaster

The commencement of inter-Afghan Peace Negotiations in September 2020 raised hopes for an improvement in the situation for civilians within Afghanistan. However, despite intermittent meetings between the Afghan government and Taliban, the peace talks failed to provide any notable success. Instead, violence has increased significantly and the Taliban has expanded its controlled areas throughout the country, ultimately claiming victory on the 15 August. In the first half of 2021, UNAMA recorded a 47% increase in civilian casualties, compared with the same period last year. With the Taliban now controlling the whole of Afghanistan, violence against civilians is escalating, with women and girls among the most vulnerable.

The intensified conflict in Afghanistan has triggered an increasing number of internally displaced people (IDPs). Since January, around 390,000 civilians have been newly displaced due to conflict, mostly in the north and northeast of the country. These numbers have only surged in recent days as many have sought to escape newly occupied Taliban territories. According to a statement by the IOM on 10 August 2021, Afghanistan remains the country with the largest internally displaced population in Asia with over 5 million IDPs, many of whom live in cramped and unsanitary conditions due to conflict and natural disasters.

On top of the recent events and rising conflict, Afghanistan also faces economic and environmental disasters adding to the complex ecosystem of drivers spurring migration. Afghanistan’s population is facing a growing array of environmental problems with more frequent and severe floods, landslides, and droughts. In a country where a significant percentage of the population lives in rural areas and depends on farming to survive, droughts have a devastating effect. According to a report by IFRC in August 2021, over 80% of Afghanistan is exposed to serious drought, further worsening the socio-economic hardships facing Afghans across the country.

Meanwhile, some estimated 16.9 million people – more than 40% of the population – face crisis or emergency level food insecurity. In April, aid agencies said 120 of Afghanistan’s roughly 400 districts – more than a quarter – are considered “hard to reach”, due to remoteness, active conflict, or multiple armed groups vying for control. People in these areas, including some 3.3 million children, are deprived of accessing essential services, such as healthcare, education, and job opportunities. These numbers will only increase as the crisis within the country worsens and international aid organizations have even more limited ability to access affected populations.

Migration continues despite increasing barriers and pushbacks

In the context of conflict, economic depression, and the COVID-19 pandemic, migration remains a key survival strategy. In the weeks leading up to Taliban takeover around 30,000 people were reportedly fleeing Afghanistan every week to neighboring countries of Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, and for some farther afield to Turkey and the EU.

The increasing urgency for many Afghans to leave the country has led the price of human smuggling services to rise significantly in the previous months. Reports from enumerators of the Mixed Migration Centre (MMC) indicate that smuggling services in Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat have significantly increased in price over the last quarter. For example, while the cost of a smuggler facilitated journey from Zaranj, Afghanistan to Tehran, Iran was about 180 USD in January and February, it increased to 250-300 USD in July. Likewise, the fee for a Turkish visa arranged by smugglers and intermediaries increased from 2,500 USD in January to over 5,000 USD by mid-July.

Further, countries across the region are increasingly clamping down, in some cases violently, in order to curb the movements of Afghans to and through their borders. Turkey, for instance, is securitizing its border with Iran by building a three-meter high concrete wall in an attempt to stop the irregular entry of Afghans. In Iran, the government has deployed military forces along its border with Afghanistan and in  Europe, countries like Greece continue to push back refugees and migrants trying to enter via sea. It is crucial that routes remain open and that Afghans seeking safety are not pushed back.

Return is no longer a safe option

After a long halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the deportations of Afghans from Europe resumed in late 2020 as EU member states argued that big cities in Afghanistan were considered ‘safe’. However, the recent deteriorating security situation and take over by the Taliban has made EU countries reconsider. In early July, the Afghan government asked EU countries to stop the deportation of Afghan nationals for three months amid concerns the country could not support their return and reintegration. On 12 July, Finland became the first EU country to announce a freeze on the forced returns of Afghan asylum seekers, shortly followed by Sweden. Others have been slower to respond, initially continuing deportations of rejected Afghan asylum-seekers, arguing that stopping returns would send “a wrong signal” and motivate more to leave Afghanistan for the EU, but shortly after more countries, including Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands announced suspending forced returns.

In 2020, more than 865,000 Afghans returned or were deported to Afghanistan primarily from Iran and Pakistan, amid the pandemic. Despite intensified conflicts and civil unrest, the trend continues, with deportations and returns in the first six months of 2021 alone totaling 628,000. Upon return, most face struggles to reintegrate, finding decent work, and face rising levels of debt. 4Mi survey data conducted by MMC between 16 February and 25 April 2021 with 706 Afghan returnees found that more than half of all respondents perceive themselves not to be economically reintegrated after return, with major challenges including finding decent work, debt, and violence. A third of the respondents also reported that they had to migrate internally to a new location in search of job opportunities, to escape violence or to access services. Among women returnees, a considerable proportion reported facing increased crimes, domestic violence, and sexual violence after their return. Returnees are struggling with these challenges while having limited access to assistance with MMC’s 4Mi survey finding that only a very small proportion of returnees received assistance and support upon return. These issues faced upon return may intensify under new authorities at the national and sub-national levels and thus deportations should not continue as return is no longer a safe or sustainable option.

Durable solutions needed for the many trapped in protracted displacement and exile

The mixed migration movements of Afghan nationals to neighboring countries and beyond has not only been the direct consequence of Afghanistan’s crises but also a coping mechanism for many seeking safety and better job opportunities. As Taliban takeover, conflict, economic instability, and environmental disasters progress on multiple fronts across Afghanistan, migration is seen as the only viable option – and a vital lifeline – for many people in Afghanistan. As the MMC 4Mi survey has already shown, even prior to the Taliban takeover, almost half of those returned to Afghanistan reported that they were planning to re-migrate either to their previous country of migration or to another country.

With the increasing securitization of borders, including violent pushbacks in most destination countries, protracted exile, with its associated risks, is a bleak reality. Unless fast and effective migration pathways and resettlement options are provided, irregular and increasingly dangerous migration will be the final straw in the exacerbated humanitarian disaster facing Afghans in the region and beyond. Until states within the region and internationally offer appropriate legal protections and durable solutions for the millions of Afghans, the humanitarian crisis will only continue to grow, trapping millions in situations of protracted displacement.