Much has been written about Afghanistan over the past year. The speed of withdrawal by allied forces, the resurgence of non-inclusive governance, threats posed by al-Qaida and the Islamic State’s local branch (ISK), and challenges in responding to humanitarian emergencies have all taken headline space. Less has been written about “involuntarily immobile” populations stuck in the country and the risks facing these groups. In order to holistically comprehend Afghanistan today, and prepare for the future, it is essential to understand the situation facing those left behind as Western forces withdrew.
Afghans who could not board evacuation flights, cannot access foreign visas, or cannot make – for reasons of age, finance, risk, or many others – the dangerous and expensive overland journey out of the country are particularly perilously placed. These populations are vulnerable to considerable security risks, natural disasters, a collapsed economic and administrative infrastructure, and decreasing options for basic survival. They are the canaries in the coalmine, measuring our successes and failures as a broader human community.
One year after the Taliban takeover, widespread hunger, destitution, and segregation – ethnic, religious, and gender-based – is increasing. According to the World Food Program, more than 90 percent of Afghans have been suffering from food insecurity since last August. Over 1 million children under the age of 5 are suffering from prolonged acute malnutrition. The economic collapse facing the country after the withdrawal of foreign support and freezing of assets has crippled the capacity of local actors to respond to these challenges.
Meanwhile, targeted violence and other armed conflict continues to displace and kill innocent people. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) documented 2,106 civilian casualties between August 15, 2021, (the day the Taliban took over Kabul) and June 15, 2022. A total of 3.4 million people are now internally displaced in Afghanistan. Afghanistan was ranked the most dangerous country in the world for four consecutive years, from 2019 to 2022 by the Global Peace Index – an annual report that measures how dangerous a nation is based on 23 indicators including political terror, deaths from internal conflict, and murder rate.
The most vulnerable people, those disproportionately affected by the risks and challenges, are often unable to find support or access protection. Hazaras remain the principal victims of catastrophic ISK attacks and Taliban atrocities, and are regularly subjected to forced evictions. Women and girls are also under siege, as the Taliban has created a devastating women’s rights crisis. Women and girls are banned from access to education, employment, health care, and political representation. The Taliban have targeted female activists with harassment and abuse, arbitrary arrest and detention, enforced disappearance, and physical and psychological torture. This treatment has also been applied to people allied with the former regime, and at least 160 former government and security officials have been executed since the Taliban takeover, according to UNAMA.
For these groups, migration is an essential protection lifeline – however, it is increasingly inaccessible. A lack of safe, legal, and accessible pathways for migration means many who need to leave are not able. According to the data collected by Mixed Migration Centre, Afghans can only obtain visas for a few neighboring countries, and the process is complicated and costly. Former officials and security forces stuck in the country are further challenged as their biometric data is registered in the Population Registry database, which is now managed by the Taliban.
“Even if I get a Pakistan visa, how can I cross the border?” said a 47-year-old Afghan interviewed by the Mixed Migration Centre. “The moment they put my passport in the machine at the border, my biometric information will pop up and they will know that I was a military man in the previous government and then, God knows what will happen to me.”
Alternate and illicit migration routes are therefore often the preferred – or only – option for many looking to leave. However, the growing cost of smuggling services, a direct consequence of increased demand, makes these routes inaccessible for many. Those simply too poor, frail, or ill to be able to afford the risk and hardship of an attempt to flee. These Afghans are a trapped population.
Involuntary Immobility While in Transit
Even those that have been able to flee Afghanistan find themselves similarly “involuntarily immobile” in neighboring Iran and Pakistan. As a result of the closure of most Western embassies in Kabul last year, Afghans who had the means to do it have travelled abroad to pursue immigration cases with foreign embassies. More than 14,000 people have moved to Germany via Pakistan through a special streamlined system for Afghan refugees. Canada’s High Commission is Islamabad is also processing visa applications from Afghan wishing to immigrate. However, hundreds of thousands of others have spent months in limbo waiting for visa progression, and risks are high. Ninety-four percent of the U.S. Special Immigrant Visa applicants in Pakistan recently reported economic hardships.
Many of these Afghans are trapped in legal precarity – overstaying or not holding a visa, and therefore subject to state action, unable to move onward, and unwilling to return for fear of death. Thousands of at-risk Afghans have been forcibly returned to Afghanistan, while others have endured xenophobic violence, exploitation, and homelessness.
The prospect of resettling a large number of at-risk Afghans is remote in the current global context, even if it is the most effective and viable means of protection available – and the hope of many displaced Afghans. Two alternatives exist: to invest in and facilitate the integration of Afghans in the region, especially in Pakistan and Iran, and to create so-called “complementary pathways” for Afghans to Western countries through education and labor mobility schemes. Neither appears likely at present.
As for integration in countries of first displacement, Pakistan and Iran increasingly disavow responsibility under international law to ensure refugee rights through their continued non-signatory status to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. As a result, efforts to facilitate – or even discuss – refugee access to labor rights, education, medical care, and other basic services founder before they have begun.
While complementary pathways may serve as a short-term approach to relocate Afghans temporarily, they are not a permanent solution, either, given the lack of mandated international protection for at-risk people. Not to mention, the number of these opportunities are miniscule in comparison to need, and often require pre-requisites many refugees do not have, such as access to a passport or certification of previous formal education.
Right to Seek Asylum
The right to seek asylum is articulated in a number of international covenants, with Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights being the most well-known: “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” In order to enjoy this right, however, a person must be able to cross an international border to seek protection. Involuntary immobility obscures access to the fundamental right that is essential to the enjoyment of all other rights: recognition of legal status.
As time passes and global attention turns elsewhere, Afghans are increasing blocked from moving and are being forgotten. Those left behind and those waiting in neighboring countries need, now more than ever, legal and accessible options to seek asylum and be provided the basic rights to which they are entitled.
The options are not out of reach. We must progress durable relocation and protection schemes targeting these immobile populations. Western countries need to step up efforts to fulfill their pledges of relocating at-risk Afghans, with continuous facilitation for Afghans waiting in limbo. Complementary pathways, while provide an alternative to relocate, need to take into account structural barriers specific to refugees or asylum seekers such as lack of formal certification or documentation, and to provide a clearer avenue toward protection and permanent status in a third country.
Most of all, we need to engage the perspectives and experiences of these populations – not only to keep them visible and supported, but also to ensure any action is targeted and responsive to their needs.