Divided Asia must face looming Afghan refugee crisis

Andrew North is a journalist who covers Afghanistan and was previously based in Kabul as a correspondent for the BBC.

“Do not come, do not come.”

That was the stern injunction from Vice President Kamala Harris this June to people from Central America trying to cross into the United States without documents.

That pretty much sums up the current message from the outside world to Afghans trying to escape their country in the aftermath of the Taliban’s takeover.

The only difference is that it is not being said out loud. But just as hard words and high walls along the U.S. southern border have not deterred poverty-stricken Central American refugees, the many obstacles being put in the way of Afghans are unlikely to work either.

There are bigger forces at work, as Afghans were already on the move in mass numbers before the recent upheaval, contributing to a trend of rising migration and refugee flows worldwide. Climate change may be as important as conflict and poverty in fueling these shifts. In Afghanistan, they are interlinked, as a spreading drought has been making rural people’s lives more insecure, with fighting often the final factor driving them from their homes.

Much of the challenge of handling these movements will fall on Asia — and deciding whether this becomes a new crisis. Yet almost everywhere, containment and denial defines the response, rather than addressing the reasons why people want or need to move.

Afghanistan is essentially locked down right now. And this is not just because the Taliban are trying to stop people from leaving.

Anxious about having to cope with a mass refugee influx, neighboring countries have sealed their borders to most Afghans, with those who make it to Pakistan or Iran having almost zero chance of getting a visa to travel further.

The exception that proves the rule is the trickle of Afghans getting out on chartered evacuation flights, as they are special cases that bypass all restrictions. Either they have foreign passports or have been accepted for resettlement because of their past work with Western military forces or other entities putting them at risk. For the rest, the outside world wants to keep them boxed in.

Pakistan, which shares responsibility for the turmoil given its close and critical support of the Taliban, and Iran are understandably wary about the prospect of Afghan refugees pouring over their borders — after carrying most of the burden of caring for the millions of Afghans displaced in past periods of conflict.

Further along the main migration route to the West, in Turkey, the government there has similar concerns. Still hosting some 3.6 million Syrian refugees, it fears that it will end up coping with the fallout from the West’s Afghan debacle too. Ankara has already been building up its own wall along its border with Iran, as well as deploying more security forces to catch them.

As the humanitarian situation worsens, a pressure-cooker situation is building. About 1 in 3 Afghans are acutely hungry, according to the World Food Program, with at least 3.5 million people displaced inside the country and growing numbers now living in tent encampments in Kabul.

An Afghan family arrives in Pakistan through the Friendship Gate crossing point at the border town of Chaman.

  © Reuters

Afghans are trapped in the middle of a battle of wills between the Taliban and the West, with Washington using its control over access to some $9 billion in frozen funds, as well as IMF and World Bank support, as leverage on women’s rights and counterterrorism issues. Still, the Taliban show no sign of compromising.

There is little sign of Asian leadership in addressing this looming crisis. Most regional powers are focusing on narrow, short-term interests. China supports releasing the frozen funds but wants assurances from the Taliban over its own security concerns in return for recognition and deeper ties.

India was blindsided by the collapse of the Afghan government — with which it had close ties — and the boost the Taliban takeover gave to its perpetual rival Pakistan. It has understandable concerns about the potential for revived anti-Indian extremist activity on Afghan soil, and further increases in Afghan drug flows. But too much focus on containing these threats could mean it ignores the bigger picture danger of a total Afghan collapse.

Iran, too, seems unsure how to proceed, and is reportedly unhappy that the interim Taliban administration includes so many hard-line figures close to Pakistan. To the north, Uzbekistan is sending friendly overtures to the Taliban, while next door Tajikistan is hosting Afghan resistance leaders. All of which bodes ill for the coming months.

Some humanitarian aid is coming in, but that does not make up for the country being effectively cut off from the international economy, with cash shortages everywhere.

With winter approaching, there are already signs of the pressure building. Tens of thousands of people have been trying to leave from southwestern Afghanistan, in the region where it borders both Iran and Pakistan. This, too, is a continuation of an established pattern, with several million Afghans taking the same route west in recent years.

If no solution is found, one thing is certain: The Afghans will come.