The following op-ed was originally compiled for The Diplomat and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.
As half a million Ukraine refugees move west into Europe, what happens to the solidarity the world once shared for Afghans?
On March 15, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees emphasized that the dire humanitarian situation in Afghanistan should not be forgotten as the world’s attention turns to the conflict in Ukraine. In a broader international context where conflicts, natural disasters, and economic crises continue forcibly displacing hundreds of thousands of people, the protection of refugees from all origins will require continuous and equal political attention and resources.
Nine months ago, grim images from Kabul airport – including overcrowded evacuation planes and throngs of people – crossed the world. States scrambled to facilitate refugee movement, waiving lengthy bureaucratic processes and vowing to ensure protection despite the challenges of a rapid and chaotic Western withdrawal. A refugee assistance agency director reported then, using an apt metaphor, “It feels like we are building the plane as we are flying it.”
Nine months later, the plane seems to have disappeared from the radar. Global sympathy for Afghans has dimmed.
Circumstances continue to deteriorate in Afghanistan, however. Mistreatment of former government affiliates, home raids, harassment of women and rights activists, persecution of Hazara and other minority populations, and violence across the country has led hundreds of thousands of Afghans to attempt perilous and life-threatening cross-border journeys. Those unable to leave – the elderly, infirm, and destitute – face retribution if their allegiances are questioned. Family members in exile, forced to leave due to their own profiles, may endanger those unable to follow.
Western evacuations of Afghans ended quickly after the Talban takeover, leaving thousands of would-be evacuees stuck in relocation limbo. This number accounts for only a small share of the Afghans who wish to travel abroad. With few other options, many move to neighboring countries. According to 4Mi enumerators, more than 3,000 cross daily to Pakistan to the south and east and Iran to the west through official border points. Estimates of people travelling without documentation and through smuggling networks, much harder to count, are much higher.
Afghan refugees and migrants are not new in Pakistan or Iran. Both countries have generously hosted numbers in the millions for decades. Now, however, xenophobia and discrimination are reported to be on the increase, and relations are strained. Videos of harassment and torture of Afghan refugees in Iran have circulated on social media since April, sparking outrage, anger, and fear among Afghan populations in Iran. A provincial official in Bushehr province of Iran warned city residents that giving jobs or accommodation to Afghans is illegal, and those who do so will be punished. Iranian police patrols in Afghan-concentrated neighborhoods have increased significantly, and police arrest undocumented Afghans in the streets, on buses and trains, and in stores and workplaces. Similarly, in Pakistan, an increasingly large number of Afghans have become undocumented after overstaying their visas, leaving them with no legal right to reside in Pakistan yet unwilling to return to Afghanistan.
Afghans in Iran and Pakistan have protested the restrictions, demanding better treatment and protection. In Islamabad, on April 19, dozens of Afghan refugees launched a demonstration in front of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office, carrying signs with the slogan: “Either kill us or save us from this misfortune.” Similar protests in Iran turned sour and descended into violence. Video footage from early April shows a group of Afghan protesters throwing rocks at Iran’s consulate in Herat, chanting “death to Iran,” inciting a new tension between the community and the country.
Authorities in Iran and Pakistan have securitized border controls and stepped up deportations, using political rhetoric portraying Afghan refugees and undocumented migrants as a threat to national security. In January, Pakistan announced it had completed 94 percent of the fencing work along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, claiming the barrier will strengthen security for both countries. Meanwhile, according to local officials at Zaranj and Islam Qala, the two key crossing points from Afghanistan to Iran, nearly 100 Afghans who wanted to enter Iran have been shot dead and over 460 have been wounded by Iranian security forces since the Taliban take over. Between 2,500 and 3,000 Afghans have been deported from Iran every day via those same border crossings since January. This number will only increase in the coming weeks with the escalation of tensions at the Iran-Afghanistan border. For those deported, the risks are considerable.
Sadiqullah,* a former soldier in the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) deported from Iran, said he would not dare to go back to his home province in Afghanistan. “My father called me and said: ‘do not come here, Taliban is looking for ANSF soldiers. If you come, we don’t know what will happen to you. Go back to Iran.’’’
Afghans have also faced pushback and heightened risk in Turkey and along the European borders. Turkey has implemented new security measures along its border with Iran since late 2021 to prevent entry, including for those from Afghanistan. In Van, a key border crossing for refugees and migrants coming from Iran, security forces are taking every precaution to prevent “illegal” crossings and smuggling activity through constant monitoring and patrolling. Meanwhile, deportations of Afghans from Turkey have never halted despite the extremely volatile situation in Afghanistan. On April 22, 227 Afghan nationals were sent back to Kabul from Malatya airport. Three more charter flights have been scheduled to send more Afghans back to Afghanistan.
The Ukrainian refugee outflux stemming from the Russian invasion compounds the challenges facing displaced Afghans. Afghan refugees in Europe, including those evacuated at the time of the Taliban takeover, are now worried that the current focus on Ukraine will risk overshadowing the support needed for them and other groups of refugees. Even prior to the Ukraine crisis, Afghans already faced violent pushbacks and risks along Europe’s external borders. In January, Greek authorities are reported to have pushed 25 Afghan refugees and migrants, including 17 children, back to Turkey. In another incident in February, 19 irregular migrants were found frozen to death near the Greece-Turkey border after being pushed back by Greek border officials.
This raises a bigger concern: the segregation in responses to refugees from different origins is challenging the concept of universal refugee protection grounded in international human rights law.
Shifting international priorities and resources, coupled with inconsistent regional responses to refugees from different origins, will likely lead to more pushbacks and increased risk for Afghans at the Turkey-EU borders. Saving Afghan lives and assisting those on the move needs to continue to be treated as a political and humanitarian imperative.
*The interview was conducted by MMC-Asia. The interviewee name was changed to protect their identity.