“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, – George Santayana.
Two decades later, once again the Taliban are back to helm in Afghanistan, after having usurped power to transform the Republic of Afghanistan into an Islamic Emirate. In 1996, when the Taliban first took over Afghanistan, they promised amnesty to government officials and said they were not revengeful. But within a few days, they abducted the former President Mohammad Najibullah, castrated him, dragged him through the streets and hung his body from a lamp post. Has the Taliban changed? Apart from being tech-savvy and roaming about in SUVs, any assessment of an ideological shift from the outfit is too much and too early to hope for. As the world’s famous armies make a retreat and the international community looks the other way, the Taliban seems to make the same promises of peace, rights for women and claims no revenge. One of the immediate responses from the Afghans was to flee from their homeland fearing persecution, well aware of the horrors committed by the previous Taliban regime. This justifies the visuals of the deluge from the Kabul international airport and the protracted stalemate in Afghanistan is steadily giving way to a refugee crisis from which both near and distant neighbours cannot be absolved off easily.
A week into their takeover, the Taliban want the world to believe that they have changed and consider themselves as statesmen, but in-the-dark they seem to have unleashed a reign of terror. By opening fire at the defenceless protesters who took down the Taliban flag, only to unfurl the Afghan flag in Jalalabad, to killing a woman for not wearing the burqa in Takhar province on the same day after a much publicised press meet where they admitted that protecting women’s rights is subject to the terms and conditions of the Sharia; and by taking into custody Salima Mazari, one of the few women governors of Afghanistan, the Taliban seem to be giving shallow promises in their second innings as well. Such developments will only force people to flee for their life from the newly formed Emirate.
Impending Afghan Refugee crisis?
The images of thousands thronging at the Kabul airport to flee for their life, amid reports of Taliban closing roads to the airport are worrying. The sad reality is that no one cares for the Afghan people, as they either will have to stay and suffer or flee to an uncertain destination. The horrifying visuals of people falling off from a US plane and families deciding to walk on foot amidst these troubled times reveal how desperate are the Afghans in search of a better livelihood.
Prior to the Taliban takeover, about 2.5 million registered Afghan refugees were living in neighbouring countries, not to forget the 3.5 million who were internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Afghanistan itself. Since early 2021, about 546,000 people left their homes due to poverty and increasing violence, and are displaced within the country. The returnees from Iran and Pakistan who house a bulk share of migrants and asylum seekers from Afghanistan this year are 663,000 and 7600, respectively. The Afghans constitute the largest refugee population in Asia and the second largest in the world and if this doesn’t qualify as a humanitarian crisis, then nothing can ever will.
Amidst these dynamics, the major powers are seen articulating refugee quotas to free themselves off easily from the ongoing Afghan crisis. The US has vowed to use Special Immigrant Visas, and has allotted $ 500 million for refugees needs, though it has not announced the exact numbers it may take in. But it fares poorly in terms of acceptance of refugees in the past years as it allowed less than 50,000 as of 2019. Canada has promised to resettle 20,000 Afghans, while Australia has allowed taking in 3000 Afghans via its humanitarian visa programme. Germany has promised to accept the Afghan refugees, but the present government is yet to overcome the consequences of its open door policy towards migrants in 2015 and is expected to tread cautiously in this regard. United Kingdom, through its Afghan Citizens Settlement Scheme has agreed to take in 20,000 Afghans, with immediate focus on women, children and religious minorities.
On the other hand, Russia, Austria, Turkey, Switzerland and France have turned their back towards Afghans, citing security reasons. The responses from the major powers towards this impending refugee crisis warrant attention in this context. Turkey has adamantly stated that it does not intend to be Europe’s refugee warehouse again. France has highlighted the need for Europe to protect itself from irregular migrants and Austria mentioned how they are keener to assist Afghans locally than accepting asylum seekers. In fact, the European Union wouldn’t want a repeat of 2015 migrant crisis in its territory. These sentiments echo the larger predicament of viewing the refugee population as a threat to national culture and security in the West. The Western powers, with their botched up invasion and hasty withdrawal, are conveniently abandoning the Afghan asylum seekers who are awaiting a refugee status. They want the neighbouring countries to respond effectively. The UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) has called upon the neighbouring countries to accept Afghan refugees and has added that the international community needs to support Afghanistan and its neighbours, anticipating, a precarious turn of events. Owing to the destabilizing situation in Afghanistan, the Afghan asylum seekers are prompted to gather before the offices of UNHCR seeking refugee status, resettlement and financial protection.
In this regard, it will not be an easy job for regional powers either. As per UNHCR statistics, Pakistan had accepted 1,438,432 refugees, while Iran had taken in 780,000 refugees from Afghanistan as of 2020, and may experience difficulty to take in more in the near future if the crisis spirals beyond control. Iran is putting up tents in the three border provinces to accommodate the fleeing Afghan populace. As Afghanistan shares a 900 Km border with Iran, people walk on foot to Iran to cross over to Europe via Turkey. With most European countries shutting their doors, Turkey is seen erecting border walls to keep the migrants out, so the Iranian dispensation will have a major role to play in the coming future. Leaving their homeland isn’t an easy choice either for the Afghans, as getting across the Taliban guarded Afghan border is a life endangering chance. Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are the Central Asian nations that share borders with Afghanistan. Tajikistan has pledged to take in 1 lakh Afghan refugees. Not being a signatory to the 1951 Refugee convention and the 1967 protocol on Refugee rights, Uzbekistan, had forced the majority of Afghan refugees to relocate to third countries in the past and could continue the same. Nevertheless, it has set up tents in its borders to house the masses. But the Central Asian nations are concerned about the consequences of Taliban influenced extremism on radical groups in their own countries alongside the influx of illegal drugs and migrants. India has offered e-visas (valid for six months) for Afghans and has committed to evacuate Hindus and Sikhs who wish to come to India as of now. However, as it is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee convention or the 1967 protocol on Refugee rights, the large number of Afghan population in India, about 8,275 of those registered with UNHCR are still fighting the get the refugee status. It is believed that there are many more who haven’t registered with the agency. Saudi Arabia and UAE were two other nations along with Pakistan that had recognised the previous Taliban rule. This time, Saudi is silent on the question of Afghan refugees though it encouraged Taliban’s return and UAE only allows its territory to be used as a travel corridor for Afghans to reach a destination county.
Having said that, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and its consequent economic slowdown, may also affect the status of asylum seekers from Afghanistan. The European nations in particular are wary of another migrant crisis and are negotiating agreements with Turkey to block asylum seekers from getting headway into European countries via Turkey. In fact, half a dozen of European nations (Germany, Austria, Denmark, Belgium, Netherlands, Greece) in their communication to the European Commission, wanted to maintain deportation of asylum seekers from Afghanistan.
Against this backdrop, one needs to introspect the evacuation strategies of the Western powers in Afghanistan. As they try to ensure the safe departure of their personnel and allies, leaving behind the victims of their invasion, they seem to be doubtful of their priorities as well. As thousands of Afghans wait at the Kabul international airport to flee, American troops were seen evacuating their military dogs on their planes and Germany shipped 22,500 litres of alcohol and took only 7 Afghans on their first flight. It cannot be denied that the West is slowly turning a blind eye towards this looming humanitarian crisis and yet gives statements of extending solidarity with the Afghan masses. This is not on account of lack of money or facilities, and can be largely attributed to a lack of political will and complete abandonment of the hapless Afghan population. 2021 marks the 70th anniversary of the Geneva Convention on Status of Refugees and its High Commissioner Filippo Grandi in his address mentioned that, “ the international community needs to uphold the principles of the Convention, and also should take into account, the right of those fleeing persecution to not to be sent back into the path of harm or danger”. Paradoxically, the Afghan refugee population are still awaiting benevolence and arbitrary goodwill of nations in pursuit of a life where their life and liberty are not threatened.
Image courtesy- PTI
Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.