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When Words Don’t Match Deeds: Afghan Refugees Have Almost Nowhere to Go
The international community has not kept the promises it made to at-risk Afghans in August 2021. From conferences to elections to uprisings, there was always a reason why countries did not prioritize helping Afghan refugees despite the urgent need. We can—and must—do better.
After Kabul fell to the Taliban, there was an enormous global outpouring of sympathy. Official statements of concern and condemnation, passionate op-eds, and commiserating tweets dominated social media and news feeds. Country after country came out with press releases declaring solidarity with Afghan women, support for vulnerable activists, and ongoing commitments to Afghans who had supported international operations in Afghanistan. In sum, words, words, and more words.
All in all, there was little international institutional support for the people of Afghanistan. Central Asian neighbors sent thousands of troops to protect borders from migrants, and Western allies spent months slowly processing selective visa applications.
Too often evacuation groups had transportation, documentation, and passenger manifests in order, but no destinations available. Months of diplomatic efforts were poured into courting the entirety of North America and Europe and many countries in South America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania. Bureaucrats, diplomats, and influential figures were tapped everywhere from Canada to South Korea to Vanuatu.
Despite the best efforts of evacuation nonprofits, the hundreds of hours poured into diplomatic efforts, and the frequently sympathetic legislatures, most countries’ policies were inflexible, with an executive summarily forbidding engagement.
When “Yes” Still Means “No”
“No” was a common refrain, even from countries that had publicly stated they would accept refugees. However, even the rare “yes” was difficult to navigate given all the barriers that stood between that initial acceptance and the actual takeoff of an evacuation flight.
Sometimes countries would only be willing to accept very select groups, such as female athletes or parliamentarians. Many Western countries would only receive refugees who had directly supported their governments’ work in Afghanistan. Other countries set nearly insurmountable barriers, such as requiring tens of thousands of dollars a month for each flight of refugees’ upkeep. Other countries relied on “maybe” to buy time to determine what their policies would look like while publicly saving face.
Over time, options grew slimmer and slimmer as more and more doors were firmly closed. The excuses for not accepting refugees and tactics for delay were abundant and diverse:
A national holiday: Tajikistan briefly appeared willing to assist with transiting refugees until a national holiday and regional conference in early September quickly pulled the entirety of the government’s attention away. The country’s main airport was shut down for over two weeks in preparation, halting all ongoing operations in the critical time immediately after Kabul’s fall.
An uprising: Kazakhstan appeared to be a good alternative Central Asian option for refugees, and discussions for setting up a lily pad were promising—until a rebellion blossomed in January 2022 that Russian troops were sent in to squash.
An election: Canada was one of the countries most receptive to helping at-risk Afghans. However, negotiations were put on hold for weeks as parliamentary elections approached. A subsequent cabinet shift further delayed operations.
A fear of the unknown: Greece was open to receiving vetted Afghan refugees, but only women and children, dramatically cutting down the amount of at-risk Afghans who were willing and able to travel.
An invasion: Some Afghan refugees went to Ukraine, a particularly welcoming country for certain categories of Afghans. There were even discussions of opening a large UNHCR refugee camp there. However, Russia’s posturing led to a quick dismissal of that idea. Following Russia’s invasion, Afghan refugees in Ukraine have now had to flee for their lives for a second time.
An impossible cost: Mexico was receptive to receiving Afghan refugees that they perceived as non-threatening, but the costs for supporting Afghans in refugee camps were so high that it prohibited almost all engagement.
An unmanageable delay: The US has made an incredible commitment to evacuate and resettle the men and women who supported their 20-year mission in Afghanistan. However, only about 3% of those with SIV applications pending as of August 2021 have been evacuated so far, with an estimated 78,000 still in danger in Afghanistan. The United States is certainly working to get its remaining allies processed, but the process is lengthy and in the meantime lives will be lost.
The Way Forward
Despite countries’ sympathetic statements, governments’ reticence to clearly state their positions on refugees led to lost time, money, and lives. When countries were theoretically open to receiving refugees, a plethora of issues were permitted to get in the way and disrupt operations. Ultimately, coordination was poor and the system was in disarray.
It does not have to be this way. We can learn our lesson and work proactively, not reactively. National governments and international institutions’ disengagement led to an information vacuum. Procedures should have been shared publicly and clearly on websites. Emails and calls should have been responded to promptly. Stonewalling only made the process more difficult and less efficient for everyone.
The foundational issue is the need for better communication and information sharing on numerous fronts. A good start would be:
A system to facilitate matchmaking between receptive countries, best-suited refugees, and groups facilitating evacuations.
A common operating map tracking what airports have what services, what borders are open, what roads are closed, etc.
A repository of information on how to apply for specific visas, how to get registered with UNHCR, etc.
A centralized platform for sharing information on needs that can be fulfilled by peer groups, such as flights in need of a certain type of passenger, families in need of food, or a need for specific medical supplies.
An overarching calendar for information on events that could influence operations, such as upcoming elections, holidays, regional conferences, etc.
The UN or a similar international institution is not the right body for creating these shared information platforms; as an inherently political body in the midst of this crisis, they have a conflict of interest. Furthermore, they are too far removed from the work being done.
However, a non-profit or think tank focused on consolidating information that is critical to humanitarian operations would revolutionize disaster resiliency operations not just in Afghanistan, but around the world.