Afghanistan: Larger crisis is just beginning

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The act of fleeing the country of one’s birth brings with it a harrowing sense of loss. The scenes at Kabul airport these past few days have sparked an outpouring of compassion around the world at the fear and desperation of thousands of Afghans. But when these images have faded from our screens, there will still be millions who need the international community to act, UNHCR said in its press release. 

In urging the Taliban and all other parties to uphold human rights, especially those of women and girls, the UN Secretary-General declared that the world would be watching. But so far, our focus has been far too narrow. The evacuation effort has undoubtedly saved tens of thousands of lives, and these efforts are praiseworthy. But when the airlift and the media frenzy are over, the overwhelming majority of Afghans, some 39 million, will remain inside Afghanistan. They need us – governments, humanitarians, ordinary citizens – to stay with them and stay the course.

Around 3.5 million people have already been displaced by violence within the country – more than half a million since the start of this year. Most have no regular channels through which to seek safety.  And in the midst of a clear emergency, with millions in dire need of help, the humanitarian response inside Afghanistan is still desperately underfunded. Some Afghans are still internally displaced, while others are starting to find their way back home following the fighting. All rely on humanitarian programmes that need scaling up, and fast.

Some Afghans will inevitably need to seek safety across the country’s borders.  They must be able to exercise their right to seek international protection, and borders must be kept open for them for this purpose. Those countries that neighbour Afghanistan who have been taking in refugees for decades need greater support. Now, they could face new outflows from Afghanistan while continuing to host existing Afghan refugees whose return prospects have diminished, as well as others who may have left for family, business or medical reasons, but who can now no longer safely return.

For four decades, Pakistan and Iran have hosted millions of Afghan refugees. While large numbers returned home after 2001 with hopes for a better future, these two countries still host some 2.2 million registered Afghan refugees — almost 90% of the total. As we continue advocating for open borders, more countries must share this humanitarian responsibility, not least given the critical situation faced by the Islamic Republic of Iran as it confronts the challenge of the pandemic.

Refugees will also need longer-term solutions. The vast majority may voluntarily return when the conditions are right, and at a time of their choosing. In comparison, resettlement to third countries – a chance for the most vulnerable to restart their lives in a new country – is an option for only a tiny proportion of the world’s refugees. Yet even for this group, after 40 years of relentless conflict in Afghanistan, as well as other displacement crises around the world, the number of resettlement places was already woefully inadequate. More resettlement options are sorely needed.  They are critically important, not only to save lives but also as a demonstration of good will towards, and support for, those countries who have taken on most responsibility for the displaced.

As people across the world welcome Afghans into their communities and homes, we cannot forget those who have been left behind. We must meet the critical humanitarian needs in Afghanistan and in countries around the region, and our response must be robust and urgent.  Standing by the people of Afghanistan means standing by all of them, whether they have sought safety abroad or are picking up the pieces of their lives at home. Those who scrambled for a place on the evacuation flights out of Kabul airport are the same as those who may approach our borders in the next few weeks and months. We have shown sympathy and solidarity for Afghans over the past few days. Let us keep on doing so. This is the time for us to truly live up to the call for international cooperation as expressed in the 1951 Refugee Convention, as reaffirmed in the Global Compact on Refugees.

The airlifts out of Kabul will end in a matter of days, and the tragedy that has unfolded will no longer be as visible.  But it will still be a daily reality for millions of Afghans.  We must not turn away.  A far greater humanitarian crisis is just beginning.

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