“Shoulder to Shoulder with Sorrow”: Afghan Refugees, Past and Present

For weeks, images and stories of Afghans leaving their homeland have flooded all forms of media. Recent events only emphasized just how difficult life is for those remaining in Afghanistan: targeted violence from the Taliban and other actors; deadly drone strikes from the United States and US-led coalition forces; a health care system on the verge of collapse; and a well-founded fear of oppression and violence against women and girls around the country. The decision to leave one’s country is indescribably disruptive and painful, and for many refugees, it is often a one-way journey. Although nearly 1 million Afghans were voluntarily or forcibly returned from Iran and Pakistan in 2016 alone, and about 860,000 were pushed to return from Iran in 2020, the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated so rapidly that the United Nations Refugee Agency has released a non-return advisory for Afghanistan, requesting that host nations do not forcibly return Afghan nationals due to concerns about human rights violations.

For a war that has lasted nearly two decades and killed tens of thousands of Afghan civilians, the newfound hand-wringing about the plight of the people of Afghanistan seemed several decades late. Yet almost as quickly as the global attention that focused so heavily on the plight of Afghan civilians came, it has since shifted. Prior to the massive evacuation effort undertaken by the United States, there were already nearly 6 million displaced Afghans—more than 2 million in neighboring countries, and another 3.5 million internally displaced within the country. After the Taliban took control of Kabul on August 14, more than 100,000 civilians were flown out of the country, tens of thousands of them Afghan nationals.

For a war that has lasted nearly two decades and killed tens of thousands of Afghan civilians, the newfound hand-wringing about the plight of the people of Afghanistan seemed several decades late.

Conditions within Afghanistan are highly variable, and the situation for the civilians still there may deteriorate rapidly, prompting further migration. The United Nations predicts that “in the coming months,” another half million Afghans could become refugees. After the media attention fades, the vulnerability of this refugee population will remain.

Forty Years of Displacement

Afghans make up one of the largest refugee populations in the world. Yet the story of mass Afghan displacement did not begin as a result of the global war on terror in the early 2000s. Due to events from decades earlier, millions of Afghans were refugees in Pakistan and Iran before the United States and coalition forces began air strikes in October 2001.

In 1978, the president of Afghanistan was assassinated by members of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, a small communist faction that took over the government in a coup d’état, sparking a decade of civil war. This followed years of clashes between government and non-state actors, including another coup just five years before. Crackdowns increased significantly after the 1978 coup, and it is estimated that tens of thousands of Afghans were jailed and/or murdered in this period. Hundreds of thousands fled the country.

The new government, disorganized and overstretched, sought support from the Soviet Union, which saw benefits in a burgeoning communist presence in Afghanistan. As the situation there deteriorated, the Soviet Union invaded the country in 1979 to bolster the flailing regime, prompting more violence and oppression. By 1981, 1.5 million Afghans were refugees; just five years later, there were 5 million. Most went to Pakistan or Iran, although their treatment in the host countries was quite disparate. Those who fled to Pakistan were housed in UN refugee camps, which eventually came to resemble other villages in Pakistan—rural and highly insecure, but with a higher level of safety and predictability than the villages the Afghans had left behind. Those who fled to Iran, on the other hand, entered a country that was itself facing high instability in a revolutionary period and a devastating war with Iraq. As a result, western nations hesitated to send money to Iran to support refugee infrastructure, and it is doubtful that the Iranian regime would have accepted the funds or the presence of agencies supported by those nations. Thus, these Afghans settled with little support or opportunities for integration and economic viability.

Western nations hesitated to send money to Iran to support refugee infrastructure, and it is doubtful that the Iranian regime would have accepted the funds or the presence of agencies supported by those nations.

Although the Soviet occupation ended in 1989, another civil war broke out in 1992 once the anti-Soviet mujahideen took control of Kabul. While many Afghans returned in the interim period, some supported by the United Nations, a new round of refugee flows began in the 1990s. Many headed to Pakistan, which closed its main borders in 1994, causing massive internal displacement in Afghanistan. Other refugees headed to nearby Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, or Russia, and some to the Gulf states as laborers. By this point, Afghanistan was in a significantly weakened state and social services were poor. Political persecutions were rampant, and many men fled to avoid conscription in government forces. Ethnic tensions, including reported ethnic cleansing, also forced some to migrate. By 2000, 3.6 million Afghans were living as refugees outside of Afghanistan, and hundreds of thousands were estimated to be internally displaced. While some repatriation initiatives assisted thousands of Afghans to return in 2000, the US invasion and subsequent occupation in 2001, as well as the brutal rule of the Taliban, once again upended life for these vulnerable populations.

Today, many Afghan refugees continue to seek refuge in neighboring countries like Pakistan (by far the largest host nation) and Iran. Those who can make the perilous journey or have institutional support may also find a host country in the European Union (primarily Germany), and a few thousand have settled in other countries like Turkey and Canada. After the beginning of the war in 2001 and up until July 2021, the United States had only admitted about 21,000 Afghan refugees—just about 1,000 per year. Another 76,000 Afghans who aided American forces (for example, as translators) were admitted through the Special Immigrant Visa program, with the vast majority admitted since 2013.

An Immeasurable Loss for Afghanistan’s Future

For years, Afghanistan has been considered the least peaceful country in the world, surpassing even Syria and Yemen in 2021. The economic forecast in the country is dismal due to widespread corruption, weak institutions, and insecurity across sectors. Extensive aid disbursement supported some economic growth since 2000, but as this assistance diminished in recent years, so have employment opportunities and household incomes. Aid commitments had already decreased by 2020, and many donors opted for only single-year pledges that do not allow for long-term building. The near-immediate gains of the Taliban upon the withdrawal of US forces further muddle this picture, as it is unclear if commitments made with the assumption of a functioning Afghan government will persist and whether engagement with the Taliban is feasible. For example, humanitarian groups are warning that international aid freezes imposed after the Taliban regained control over Kabul will cause thousands of donor-funded health facilities to shutter. Many initiatives supporting women’s rights and education will suffer as well.

Aside from the physical and structural violence of war, Afghanistan faces other existential threats, especially from climate change. Rising temperatures, increasing periods of drought, and more extreme weather events will contribute to greater insecurity and migration. Those who have thus far withstood violence, oppression, and political instability may now find themselves forced to flee simply as a result of poor water supplies or inability to grow food. Because of the decades of conflict, climate change initiatives have been scant, and the Taliban are unlikely to prioritize these issues as they face a host of political and economic challenges in a country that is not the same as it was when they ruled in the late 1990s, along with some level of global isolation.

Because of the decades of conflict, climate change initiatives have been scant, and the Taliban are unlikely to prioritize these issues as they face a host of political and economic challenges.

These massive structural challenges would test any country; in Afghanistan, the burden can seem almost insurmountable. For many, a paucity of options makes displacement the best alternative. Yet involuntary displacement is not just detrimental to the future of an individual refugee, but to the country that is left behind. This is observable with just the most recent round of evacuations; many of the country’s most educated and politically engaged, including engineers, doctors, scholars, artists, and activists, have left. Many who remain in Afghanistan, especially women, are facing the choice of erasing their achievements for fear of reprisal from the Taliban. Fragile institutions that were propped up by dogged commitments from local Afghans will no longer stand without their support.

Some argue that the mass departures of Afghans to more prosperous countries could potentially help rebuild the country from the outside by increasing global economic ties to Afghanistan, sending remittances that directly support recipient household needs, and supporting civil society organizations that may even influence positive political outcomes within the country. Yet the treatment of refugees in their host communities will largely influence whether any of these potentially positive outcomes is possible. European nations were reportedly not enthused about the withdrawal from Afghanistan, after a decade of witnessing increasingly nationalistic policies against refugees from Syria, Libya, and other states in and around the Middle East and North Africa. By 2017, for example, Denmark was approving just 16 percent of asylum applications from Afghans. Many countries, including Pakistan, are not eager to take another large influx of Afghan refugees. The United Kingdom has committed to taking only 5,000 Afghans in the next year, while countries like Australia, Austria, and Switzerland have made it clear that they are not interested in taking in any large numbers of refugees. Turkey is even accelerating construction of a border wall with Iran to prevent Afghan refugees from entering.

A Moral Obligation

 While vilification of and discrimination against refugees have intensified in recent decades, particularly as most refugees are from Muslim-majority countries, in some circles there appears to be a touch more nuance in the approach to civilian refugees from Afghanistan, especially to those Afghans who supported the US-led coalition’s efforts. Yet thus far, messages are mixed. Building off former President Donald Trump’s xenophobia, especially toward Muslims, many prominent Republicans are calling for assistance for Afghan refugees, but not necessarily to allow them to enter the United States. Support for admitting Afghans to the United States is often limited only to those who helped US forces (81 percent think the United States should offer asylum to these Afghans).

Support for admitting Afghans to the United States is often limited only to those who helped US forces

Anti-refugee sentiment tends to be founded on stereotypes of refugees as being more likely to engage in crime and terrorism, although data from previous waves of Afghan refugees suggests that these fears are unsubstantiated. Shifting these stereotypes, once formed, is much more difficult than instilling them to begin with. Even the way refugees are typically covered in the press is dehumanizing and contributes to the rise of anti-refugee policies and even more domineering political figures in their own countries. Yet places that have embraced Afghan refugees and offered them economic and educational opportunities find that they, like previous waves of refugees from conflicts around the world, become invaluable members of communities.

More than a “Graveyard of Empires”

 Migration, voluntary and involuntary, has guided much of the foreign policy discussion in recent decades, especially as the Syrian refugee crisis engulfed much of the Middle East and Europe and many countries have taken more nationalist stances. Despite the persistence of people fleeing violence, oppression, and insecurity, however, host countries still have not acknowledged the simple reality that, as protracted war continues and the threat of climate change expands, migration flows are only going to increase. Ending the wars that produce these refugee flows would be a significant step toward limiting displacement and forced migration; but as the case of Afghanistan suggests, it is not enough. People need to be given hope, opportunity, and safety in their homeland; when circumstances dictate that leaving is the best option, host nations should offer compassion and support, and not use refugees as political pawns.

Although this is true for all refugee populations, Afghanistan, which has been subject to foreign intervention, invasion, and occupation for most of the past half century, should be uniquely poised to receive support from the countries that directly contributed to its instability. The alternative—creating humanitarian catastrophes and then taking little to no responsibility for supporting the civilians affected by them—is not just immoral, but it is more likely to lead to the instability, terrorism, and undocumented migration many nations claim they do not want to see.

Although Afghanistan is often colloquially referred to as the “graveyard of empires,” it is the Afghans themselves who are the victims and have been killed, oppressed, and forced to leave their homes. A geographically beautiful and diverse country with a rich cultural tradition in cuisine, music, literature, and so much more, Afghanistan is often reduced to an ahistorical stereotype that fits into notions of a country suitable for invasion. A famous Afghan song from the 1990s, “My Homeland,” written by a singer who left Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal, centers the Afghan experience in a way that reflects reality more than the dehumanizing narrative of the empire stopper: “Without you, I have always been shoulder to shoulder with sorrow… My homeland, my only love, my existence…They stole your treasures to enrich themselves.”

The painful history of war in Afghanistan is impossible to ignore when considering its future, and human rights abuses and oppression should not be tolerated in any corner of the world. Yet only with a broad and culturally competent approach to Afghanistan can its future have the hope of looking different from the past, both for the people remaining within its borders and the millions who have been forced to cross them.