Hundreds of thousands of Afghans attempting to escape Taliban persecution and the country’s economic collapse are largely being met with closed borders, hardening attitudes, and deportation. Meanwhile, Western governments have been slow to fulfil promises to relocate tens of thousands of Afghan allies left behind in last year’s chaotic withdrawal of foreign troops.
Those most at risk of Taliban reprisal are former members of law enforcement and civil servants from the Western-backed government that disintegrated when the Taliban returned to power in Kabul on 15 August last year. Journalists, civil-society activists, women rights activists, and women who have seen their access to education and employment curtailed by the Taliban are also seeking exits from the country. So are members of minority eithnic groups, such as Hazaras, who face persecution from the Taliban and other jihadist organisations.
Despite the threat the Taliban pose for many, the main push factor for people leaving Afghanistan is the acute collapse of the Afghan economy, which is fuelling one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.
“Many of the people leaving [Afghanistan] are young men or boys that are trying to get into Iran or Pakistan in order to make money and help their families back home. Others are looking to continue on to Turkey and Europe,” said Abdul Ghafoor Rafiey, the director of the Afghanistan Migrant Advice and Support Organisation, and an Afghan refugee himself based in Germany.
More than 90 percent of the Afghan population is suffering from food insecurity, and each month tens of thousands of children need emergency medical treatment due to malnutrition, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch. Households headed by women, who lost employment after the Taliban took power, have been hit the hardest.
The crisis worsened after US President Joe Biden issued an executive order in February confiscating $7 billion in Afghan foreign exchange reserves held in the United States. Half of that money is supposed to be divided among families who filed lawsuits against the Taliban after losing loved ones in the 9/11 attacks.
The US Treasury Department transferred the other half to a separate account in the New York Federal Reserve under the name of the “Afghan Central Bank” and authorised transfers to any entity or body – such as World Bank trust funds or UN programmes – that will use the money “for the benefit of the Afghan people and for Afghanistan’s future”. Technically, the Taliban could also access the funds if Afghanistan’s central bank had an official that the US recognises, but it doesn’t.
Meanwhile, humanitarian aid donations and pledges have been unable to mitigate Afghanistan’s hunger crisis due in part to the chilling effect of Western sanctions on Taliban figures that now occupy positions of power in the central bank and government ministries. The focus of Western governments and major donors on the humanitarian fallout of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is also diverting resources and attention away from crises elsewhere in the world, including Afghanistan.
“People are selling their daughters to get enough money to live. People are also selling their body parts and organs to feed the family.”
“The situation is at its worst ever,” Zaman Sultani, South Asia researcher at Amnesty International, told The New Humanitarian. “People are selling their daughters to get enough money [to live]. People are also selling their body parts and organs to feed the family. That is what the humanitarian situation is like on the ground, and it keeps on getting worse.”
Entry restrictions, pushbacks, and forced returns
Pakistan and Iran have long hosted the vast majority of people displaced over successive decades of conflict in Afghanistan. Currently, Iran hosts about 3.5 million displaced Afghans and Pakistan hosts about 3.1 million. Only about a third of Afghans in each country are registered with the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. The rest are undocumented, due to challenges in obtaining legal status, and risk deportation.
Pakistan’s entry requirements for Afghans have been inconsistent since the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan. According to a research report by the European Union Agency for Asylum (EUAA), Afghans are required to show authorities a valid passport and visa, yet some are occasionally permitted to enter with only a national ID card.
Due to an overwhelming demand for passports and a lack of government staff, passport offices in Afghanistan are often closed. Many people opt to sell their property and assets to purchase travel documents for roughly $9,000 on the black market, according to information compiled by Samuel Hall, an independent think tank conducting research on migration in Afghanistan, and shared with The New Humanitarian.
Hundreds of thousands of others pay still-high, but less exorbitant costs to smugglers who ferry people without documents across the border into Pakistan, according to Samuel Hall. However, the Pakistani army and paramilitary groups frequently push people back across the border, despite UNHCR advising countries not to forcibly return people to Afghanistan.
“Under the current circumstances, nobody should deport Afghans. The risk on the ground for many is imminent.”
Between January and July of this year, the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, found that 46,300 Afghans were expelled or deported from Pakistan, which is 40,000 more than in the same period in 2021.
In Iran, violent pushbacks and deportations were occurring long before the Taliban returned to power. This year, however, about 462,000 people have been returned to Afghanistan – an uptick of 42,000 from last year, according to OCHA. Those who have been forcibly returned include Afghans who recently crossed the border as well as those living in Iran, sometimes for years without being able to obtain residency documents.
“Under the current circumstances, nobody should deport Afghans. The risk on the ground [for many] is imminent,” said Sultani, from Amnesty International.
Dangerous routes and deportations
Many Afghans attempting to leave the country die or suffer serious injuries from traffic accidents, sickness, and the cold, or after being beaten or shot by border guards along dangerous smuggling routes, particularly to Iran. Although data is limited, the UN’s migration agency, IOM, found that 472 Afghan nationals died attempting to leave the country between July and December 2021. More than half of all registered deaths among Afghans attempting to leave the country in the last eight years were recorded in 2021.
“We have received Afghans returning with critical health needs at various border crossing points [with Iran and other countries] where our mobile teams offer medical assistance and protection. A lot of people also die at the borders due to traffic accidents or issues during smuggling. Many come back to Afghanistan carrying the bodies of their loved ones or those injured and needing urgent intervention,” said Safa Msehli, a spokesperson for IOM.
“Afghans speak matter of factly about beatings [they endure] at the border [between Afghanistan and Iran as well as Iran and Turkey],” added Bill Frelick, the Refugee and Migrant Rights Division director at Human Rights Watch. “But many break down when they recall seeing dead bodies or the bodies of children that froze to death in the mountains.”
Frelick told The New Humanitarian that pushbacks are also common at the Turkish-Iranian border, where many Afghans seeking safe haven and opportunity outside of neighbouring countries attempt to cross, often en route to the EU.
Afghans who get into Turkey are frequently denied legal status, according to Frelick, who explained that offices connected to Turkey’s Migration and Management Directorate subject Afghans to a “bureaucratic runaround” whereby each office refuses to register Afghan asylum claims and instead directs them to another office, which does the same.
Meanwhile, attitudes towards those seeking safety in Turkey – which hosts the largest refugee population in the world – have hardened in recent years. Anti-refugee sentiment is particularly high ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for next year, and the Turkish government says it deported 32,000 Afghans in the first six months of this year.
“In most cases, [Turkish authorities] are forcing people to sign ‘voluntary return’ papers. People we spoke to said they were either deceived into signing – thinking the document was to get blankets or food – or told to put their fingerprints on a document they didn’t understand,” said Frelick. “The fact of the matter is that many people who have protection claims didn’t get a hearing and were sent back [to Afghanistan] from Turkey against their will.”
Researchers and advocates add that it is difficult to tell whether people have been persecuted by the Taliban following returns from Pakistan, Iran, or Turkey because it is nearly impossible to follow up on individual cases due to the difficulty of conducting monitoring activities on the ground in Afghanistan.
Europe’s cold reception
After Kabul fell to the Taliban, European leaders warned Afghans not to try and reach the continent irregularly, fearing a repeat of the 2015 refugee crisis that saw the arrival of nearly a million Syrians escaping their country’s civil war.
Indicative of the EU’s response, in a televised address just days after the Taliban entered Kabul – and while Afghans desperate to leave the country were risking their lives to try to board Western evacuation flights – French President Emmanuel Macron called on Europe to “anticipate and protect itself from a wave of migrants” from Afghanistan.
Eventually, 15 EU countries agreed to relocate 40,000 Afghans. The bloc’s main position, however, has been to pledge humanitarian support to aid groups and countries bordering Afghanistan in order to support Afghan refugees in the region.
Afghans who have ventured outside the region to the EU on irregular migration routes face a hard road. Like other asylum seekers, they are met with increasingly harsh treatment on the bloc’s external borders, including often violent pushbacks by European security forces. Afghans are also seeing their asylum applications rejected at a higher rate.
According to the EUAA, the approval rate for Afghan asylum seekers dropped to 53 percent in May – its lowest since July 2021. This compares to about 97 percent of Ukrainians – those who applied for asylum instead of registering for temporary protection – 96 percent of Syrians, and 80 percent of Yemenis in the same month.
Some EU member states, such as Belgium, have justified denying Afghans protection on the grounds that Afghanistan is no longer affected by indiscriminate violence, although the UN has found persistent allegations of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, and torture and ill-treatment carried out by the Taliban.
“[Decisions on asylum] are politically motivated. [And when it comes to Afghans], it is all about a lack of political willingness,” Reshad Jalali, a policy officer for the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), a Europe-wide network of NGOs, told The New Humanitarian.
“Where there is political willingness, [EU states] provide protection for certain nationalities. Where there isn’t, then they don’t provide protection. They will find all the excuses not to provide protection,” Jalali added.
Afghans whose asylum claims are rejected can’t be deported from Europe because the EU suspended all return agreements after the Taliban returned to power. But being denied asylum cuts them off from state support and often forces them to live on the streets. Some migrate to a second European country to lodge another asylum claim, Jalali explained.
Around 76,000 Afghans who supported the 20-year US military presence in Afghanistan were evacuated to the United States during the withdrawal of foreign troops last August. But an estimated 80,000 others were left behind.
Many had submitted applications for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) even before the Taliban’s return to Kabul. The SIV programme was created in 2006 to give people who assisted the US government or armed forces in Afghanistan or Iraq a way to migrate to the United States.
But the processing of applications is slow: Only around three percent of Afghans who qualify for SIVs have been resettled, and tens of thousands of Afghans in the pipeline are still waiting to be relocated from countries where they have temporarily sought safe haven, such as Pakistan and Turkey.
“I don’t think anybody – even the US government – knows how many Afghans that are hoping to come to the US are in which countries. There has been a pretty obstructive lack of transparency in regards to data, numbers, status of people, and timelines,” said Adam Bates, a policy council at the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), an NGO that provides legal assistance to refugees and asylum seekers.
“Afghans had every reason to think that within a year from that time, they would be safely resettled.”
According to Bates, neighbouring countries may be less inclined to deport Afghans if Washington was committed to speedily relocating refugees to the United States. President Biden had promised to evacuate thousands of Afghans who helped the US military last August, calling them “equally important” as US citizens.
“I think a lot of Afghans that supported the United States expected the president to make good on his promise,” Bates told The New Humanitarian. “Afghans had every reason to think that within a year from that time, they would be safely resettled.”
For the vast majority of Afghans outside the SIV programme attempting to reach the United States, the situation doesn’t look good either: The vast majority who have applied to enter on humanitarian grounds have had their applications rejected; and the Biden administration has been slow to fulfil its pledge of rebuilding a US refugee resettlement programme gutted by the Trump administration.
Biden set the ceiling for refugee admission at 125,000 for this fiscal year, but only 25,000 people are expected to be resettled, restricting another potential route for Afghans to reach the country.
Meanwhile, the situation in Afghanistan is getting worse, with spiralling levels of inflation and the war in Ukraine’s impact on global food supplies leading to even higher levels of hunger. In the last two months, the costs of basic food staples such as rice and wheat have doubled, along with the prices of fertiliser and fuel – which impact Afghanistan’s domestic food production.
Living under the Taliban also remains brutal for many, especially for women. “The number of people fleeing is always increasing,” said Ghafoor Rafiey, from the Afghanistan Migrant Advice and Support Organisation.
Edited by Eric Reidy.