The “Worst Case:” Half A Million Afghans To Be Displaced By End Of Year

In the wake of the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan, many Afghans are being forced to flee the country in fear for their safety and freedoms. The United Nations Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) Deputy High Commissioner Kelly Clements cautioned the international community that the number of Afghan refugees seeking asylum may be as high as 500,000 by the end of 2021. Additionally, the agency estimates that now over 18 million people may require humanitarian assistance inside Afghanistan. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) officials report that the number is in fact likely larger, due to the recent rise in conflict and violence. It is further compounded by health concerns such as drought and COVID-19. The means of this aid, as well as the logistical and structural support for fleeing refugees, remains unclear. 

At a recent emergency G7 meeting, participating countries failed to agree on any refugee resettlement scheme, despite it being a priority. Only a few have announced how many refugees they’re willing to resettle, with some seemingly shying away from declaring reluctance to do so. France’s President Emmanuel Macron said “[E]urope cannot alone assume the consequences” of the situation in Afghanistan.” In a similar vein, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a phone call that they “will not be able to shoulder the additional burden” of a new wave of Afghan refugees. This comes before any reports of significant numbers of Afghan refugees making it to the border. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson pushed for the Taliban to ensure a safe passage of refugees and commit to other humanitarian assurances, in exchange for the unfreezing of financial assets owned by Afghanistan. 

Clements claims that the nearly $300 million UNHCR plan is “about contingency planning… not the actual response.” Meanwhile, UN OCHA Director Wafaa Saeed Abdelatef calls for the urgent scaling up of funding to $800 million, to respond adequately to present challenges. 

Again, it seems unclear how this aid would be utilized, seeing the lack of clarity in the Taliban’s foreign policy. Moreover, Afghanistan’s neighbors seem negative about the prospect of refugees and perpetuate a problematic narrative. “[E]very other refugee could be a terrorist. We’re all tense,” an Uzbek senior intelligence officer told Al Jazeera. This attitude, as well as that of Macron and Erdogan, appears to be prevalent and an existential threat to Afghans arriving in Europe and Afghanistan’s neighboring countries. It treads the line of the most recent wave of populism, and appears to be a serious obstacle at the negotiating table for countries nearing the end of election cycles. Another concerning factor is the narrative that many European countries, along with the United States, are only outwardly committed to helping Afghans who have cooperated with their respective armies during the 21-year war.

Before these recent developments, there have already been 2.6 million Afghan refugees worldwide, most of which are located in Pakistan and India. Following the rapid U.S. withdrawal earlier this month, Kabul airport has experienced unprecedented levels of overcrowding, as those hoping to escape the country gather there, anticipating evacuation flights. However, as most G7 countries complete their evacuation procedures, many hopefuls are expected to be left behind, with the Taliban already putting restrictions on who can get onto the planes. Before the 31 August deadline, President Joe Biden committed to resettling between 50,000 and 65,000 Afghan nationals in the U.S. The U.K. aims to resettle only 5,000. It remains unclear if the U.K. and EU ‘s renewed financial commitments will extend exclusively to refugees already in their territories, or if portions will be dedicated to the continuous support of resettling more.  

According to Politico, the next step is a rare G20 summit including countries like Turkey and India, which anticipate and already house the most refugees, so they can take part. However, whether the G20 countries will be able to agree on any sort of cohesive approach to anything is to be seen, since even the G7 couldn’t. It’s too early to accurately predict the numbers of refugees due to the currently unclear Taliban policies on people leaving Afghanistan and G20 countries’ willingness to help beyond the short-term. But it is imperative that all G20 countries prepare for “the worst case,” according to Clements. Such preparedness must be structural, as well as political.