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Aid groups warn of possible refugee crisis in Afghanistan far beyond Western evacuation plans

An Afghan national reacts at a gathering in New Delhi to urge the international community to help Afghan refugees on Aug. 18.
An Afghan national reacts at a gathering in New Delhi to urge the international community to help Afghan refugees on Aug. 18. (Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters)
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As the Biden administration surges more evacuation personnel to Kabul’s international airport, aid groups are warning that a much larger refugee crisis looms because of the displacement of half a million Afghans in the past eight months of fighting between the Taliban and Afghan National Army.

Analysts say the size of the refugee outflow of those and potentially tens of thousands more will depend heavily on how the Taliban governs and whether an insurgency emerges to challenge its rule, resulting in further bloodshed and displacement.

Just as millions of Afghans fled their country when the Taliban first took power in 1996, the reemergence of the militants on the streets of Kabul and other cities has already sent thousands fleeing to the closest border they can find.

Aid groups, such as Refugees International, are already calling on the Biden administration to step up its refugee efforts by publicly committing to resettling up to 200,000 Afghan refugees, as the group wrote in a letter to President Biden this week.

“Canada stepped up, and we need the U.S. to step up, which will put pressure on other Western governments to commit to resettling refugees,” said Hardin Lang, vice president for programs at Refugees International.

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The number of Afghans fleeing the country is still relatively small, said Christopher Boian, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, but aid groups say that could quickly change.

“Right now, we don’t see large numbers making their way across borders, but that probably has to do with the fact that the Taliban are controlling roads and checkpoints,” Lang said.

The specter of a new refugee crisis akin to the one that resulted in Syria in 2015 and saw the rise of populist parties across the West has already focused the attention of governments eliciting displays of nativism and altruism.

Turkey is building a wall along its border with Iran to block Afghan refugees — many of them traversing northern Iran on foot — from reaching its territory. Pakistan and Iran have issued confusing statements about whether new Afghan refugees will be permitted to enter.

In Europe, where millions of refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern wars fled to in recent years, some countries say it’s their moral responsibility to admit arriving Afghans, while others say their tolerance for refugees and resources has long passed their limits.

Some in the European Union called on the bloc’s 27 member states to increase the number of refugees, but the appeal by Ylva Johansson, the European commissioner for home affairs, came as some of the E.U.’s largest members have signaled that they are unwilling to lead on finding a solution.

French President Emmanuel Macron came under harsh criticism for his Monday call for Europe to “protect ourselves against significant irregular migration flows” following the Taliban takeover. He called on officials in Pakistan, Iran and Turkey to prevent migrants reaching their countries from traveling any further.

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Canada and Britain garnered praise from aid groups after promising to resettle 20,000 Afghans each, focusing on women, children, religious minorities and LGBTQ people.

Even as the United States continues to evacuate its own citizens by air — and on Wednesday promised that it would try to include as many vulnerable people who want to leave as possible — it has acknowledged that the numbers it can accommodate within the time available may be limited.

When asked about the request to commit to resettling 200,000 Afghans, State Department spokesman Ned Price said the United States wasn’t prepared to discuss specific numbers but would continue the airlift as long as it safely could.

“I don’t want to put a number on it because we are going to keep running a thousand miles an hour for as long as we can,” he said during a news briefing.

Most of the refugee flows out of Afghanistan go to Pakistan. Up to three million Afghans already have refugee status in Pakistan from the years of previous Taliban control. Some, but far from all, returned home at various points during the subsequent 20-year U.S.-led war.

The two main border crossings — at Torkham in eastern Afghanistan and Chaman in the south — were closed by the Taliban as it consolidated control of those areas. This week, those crossings have been partially reopened, although only for those Afghans who can present existing Pakistani residency documents.

Prime Minister Imran Khan said months ago that Pakistan would seal its border with Afghanistan if the Taliban took over. But public statements since then, especially since the Taliban moved into Kabul on Sunday, have been contradictory. Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said refugees would be admitted but isolated in temporary camps near the border.

On Wednesday, according to Pakistani media, Interior Minister Rasheed Ahmad said that “no Afghan refugees are coming to Pakistan.”

Iran’s border with Afghanistan extends nearly 600 miles, most of it desert, and Afghans have long crossed relatively freely to work there. Many refugees who fled there in the 1990s returned to their homeland, but a new influx is now expected, in addition to up to three million registered and unregistered Afghans still living there, according to international estimates.

Iran’s government, concerned about its own economic implosion and a worsening wave of the coronavirus, says it has instructed border guards not to admit Afghans. But it has also reportedly set up refugee camps in three border provinces for fleeing migrants who reach there, saying they will only temporarily be allowed to stay. While Iran’s border is more tightly controlled than that of Pakistan, it has long served as a way station for Afghans trying to get farther west, many of them trying to cross the northern part of the country into Turkey.

Over the past several weeks, Turkey’s military has begun building a nine-foot-tall wall, monitored by troops and sensor technology, and flanked in some places by 12-foot-deep trenches. “Turkey is not a stopover for migrants,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last week. “The walls being built there are to prevent these irregular migrants from entering our country.”

Separate from general refugee flows, the Biden administration is struggling just to find countries to temporarily host Afghans who helped the United States during the war under the Special Immigrant Visa program. In response to specific appeals from the Biden administration last month, Uganda has agreed to host 2,000 of them, while Albania, Kosovo and North Macedonia became the first European countries agreeing to provide at least temporary shelter for hundreds of U.S.-evacuated Afghans.

“Without any hesitation or single conditioning, I have given my consent to such humanitarian operation,” Kosovo’s president, Vjosa Osmani, said in a Facebook post.

“Nobody better than us knows what it means to be expelled and to leave by force from where you grew up, to separate from your loved ones, to be forced to flee to save your life,” she said, a reference to the ethnic cleansing during the 1990s Balkan wars.

Ruby Mellen and Claire Parker contributed to this report.

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