As Afghanistan reels under the final onslaught of the Taliban, one problem has not got the attention it deserves: the crippling refugee crisis.
As the Taliban began overrunning the Afghan countryside early this year, hundreds of thousands were forced to flee to provincial capitals and the national capital, Kabul. According to the United Nations, of the 400,000 people who were displaced from their homes since the start of this year, over half were children.
Now, with the Taliban having captured Kabul over the weekend, Afghans – especially women and children – have nowhere to go. In extraordinary video footage captured at Kabul airport on Monday morning, hundreds were seen desperately jostling for a chance to climb aboard an aircraft and leave the country. Elsewhere, as several thousand others headed for the border, Iran and Albania vowed to set up temporary housing to accommodate them.
But one country that needs to step up to the challenge is India. Having taken over the presidency of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) this month, India has been seeking to demonstrate its leadership on issues of international security. With Afghanistan burning in its own neighborhood, India hopes to be able to lead a lifeless UNSC with more purpose.
Yet, on the question of refugees, far from leading global action, India has been quiet at best and counterproductive at worst.
Despite hosting refugees from across Tibet, Bangladesh, and beyond for generations, India is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, and has no law protecting the rights of refugees or even defining them. The lack of proper legislation and transparency has allowed refugees to be politicized and, oftentimes, treated as national security threats.
Under the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, that vacuum has been widely misused, as India’s outlook towards refugees turned decidedly communal.
For years, Rohingya refugees from Myanmar have been caricatured in Indian politics and media, even as innocent people were left floating in the Bay of Bengal. In 2018, the then Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju said that India should not “go soft” on the Rohingyas. The following year, in the run-up to the 2019 parliamentary elections, India’s subsequent Home Minister Amit Shah called Muslim refugees from Bangladesh and Myanmar “termites,” and vowed to “throw them into the Bay of Bengal.”
In the months that followed, the Narendra Modi government passed the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which further misused the lack of refugee legislation to pointedly exclude Muslims from a fast-tracked citizenship system for refugees from the neighborhood.
That communally-colored outlook has now percolated into India’s handling of the situation in Afghanistan as well. At a press briefing last week, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Arindam Bagchi focused India’s strategy on protecting Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan. When asked for a broader plan, he refused to specify if India would welcome Afghan refugees who wish to leave the country. Reports later suggested that India may take in a few select groups, including political leaders and human rights workers, as well.
But according to 2020 estimates, of the almost 40 million people in Afghanistan, 99 percent are Muslim – and most, if not all, women are now at risk. Last week, as the Taliban swept through the northern regions of Afghanistan, women were ordered to stay at home, while some of them were forcibly married off to Taliban fighters.
At the UNSC on Monday, while India’s ambassador expressed concern for “Afghan men, women and children,” he did not steer the Council’s agenda towards creating pathways for Afghan refugees and focused entirely instead on New Delhi’s fears of potential terrorism in the neighborhood.
Some analysts would argue that India is right to prioritize the vulnerable, albeit far smaller, religious minority communities in Afghanistan, rather than opening up its borders to everybody. But the problem for India is that it does not have a legislative framework that would assess these threats on a case-by-case basis and grant asylum accordingly. Instead, by publicly declaring a policy of religious discrimination, New Delhi has not only abandoned millions of Muslims seeking to flee Taliban rule; it has also put a target on the backs of Hindus and Sikhs who are still trapped in the country.
In order to lead global action on Afghanistan, India must salvage its own credibility as a hospitable destination for asylum-seekers. That means that India must shed its ad hoc approach to refugee crises and immediately lay out a refugee law, introducing objectivity and inclusivity into its policy. At the UNSC, India should lobby countries around the world to resettle innocent men, women and children fleeing from the violence.
There is no better way for New Delhi to demonstrate timely leadership on this unfolding global security crisis.