Event Report: Displacement in Afghanistan—How Should the International Community Respond

On September 14, 2021 the World Refugee & Migration Council in collaboration with the US Institute of Peace and the University of Ottawa’s Centre for International Policy Studies, held the event “Displacement in Afghanistan: How Should the International Community Respond”.

During the event, panelists discussed the situation in Afghanistan, how the international community can negotiate with the Taliban to provide assistance to Afghans, the situation facing internally displaced Afghans, migration pathways or other options may available to those fleeing Afghanistan, and the actions of the international community in the wake of signing The Global Compact on Refugees.

The discussion was moderated by WRMC President and Chancellor’s Professor, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University Fen Hampson, and included the following panelists: Belquis Ahmadi, Senior Program Officer, Afghanistan Program, USIP; Nipa Banerjee, Senior Fellow and Adjunct Professor, School of International Development and Global Studies, University of Ottawa; Fawzia Koofi, Former Deputy Speaker of the Afghan Parliament and Head of the Women’s Affairs Commission; Eileen McCarthy, Advocacy Manager, Norwegian Refugee Council, Afghanistan; Aplaslan Özerdem, Dean of the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution; Sima Samar, UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Internal Displacement, former Afghanistan State Minister for Human Rights and International Affairs; and Najeeba Wazefadost, Afghan refugee, Co-founder Asia Pacific Network of Refugees and Global Independent Refugee Women Leaders.

The Situation in Afghanistan

There is fear of day-to-day life under the Taliban. Afghans are subjected to arbitrary instances of house searches or arrest as well as cases of extrajudicial killings. The Taliban has intensified attacks on civilians, private and public properties as well as security establishments. Further, the Taliban has clamped down on human rights including denying women access to work or equal education, and the freedoms of movement and expression – including targeting activists, protestors, and journalists. Afghans have an uncertain future leading many people to make attempts to, or already leave the country taking dangerous routes, which will result in a migration crisis in the region. 

The uncertain future Afghans face is compounded by its weak institutions. Despite it traditionally being a rich county, with a young and dynamic population that has great economic potential, there is little opportunity for them. The lack of a strong private sector has resulted in most of the population relying on the government’s administration of foreign aid as a source of income. With the Taliban’s resurgence, humanitarian organisations providing aid have left, leaving large portions of the population without a salary. As a result, there is a need to find a way to toe the very narrow line between working with the government of the Taliban and supporting them to help provide some sort of income and livelihood to the Afghan population. The international community has an obligation to assist civilians in Afghanistan as well as those who are fleeing, the Afghan people should not be punished for who is their leader.

There are massive humanitarian needs for Afghans that remain in the country. About half of the population needs humanitarian assistance, and that number is expected to rise. As conflict dies down, drought, COVID-19 and high unemployment have led to economic freefall in the country with Afghans taking on high levels of debt just to pay for food, healthcare, and education. As a result, the poverty rate is likely to rise in the coming years meaning that there is a need for the mobilisation of humanitarian and other forms of aid to support Afghans through the ongoing crisis as well as to address the humanitarian needs that pre-existed the current situation. 

Diplomatic Action and International Aid

Different kinds of diplomatic leverage are available to Western governments to prevent the human rights abuses that are taking place in Afghanistan. An opportunity was missed in 2002 when, at the Bond Conference, Western powers gave up an opportunity to talk to a defeated and broken Taliban where they could have negotiated from a leveraged position. Instead, the Taliban used the following 19 years to regroup and strengthen its insurgency in Afghanistan to the point it could retake territorial central as what was witnessed. 

If Western powers forgo the opportunity to negotiate with the Taliban now, they will isolate the Taliban and innocent Afghan civilians opening the door to the Taliban returning to the draconian regime that presided in the mid 1990s. Notably, negotiating with the Taliban does not imply the recognition of the regime as the legitimate government but to have consultations to put pressure on the Taliban for provision of safe passage for Afghans seeking to flee the country and human rights for those who stay, in addition to the provision of aid.

Aid should be delivered to Afghans as soon as possible, but not through the Taliban. Instead, it should be delivered through NGOs with clear mechanisms in place to reduce corruption to avoid creating another set of warlords or billionaires such as has occurred in the past 20 years. The international community should condition their aid – not humanitarian aid – to human, specifically women’s, rights in the country. Further the international community should pressure countries aiding the Taliban to weaken the Taliban’s position when negotiating with the rest of the international community.

Women’s Rights

Women’s rights have been particularly curtailed under the Taliban. The women leaders and feminist activist who helped move Afghanistan into the 21st century are now fighting for their lives. These leaders are no longer talking about preserving the progress of the rights that they have gained. The discussion is now about their conservation and survival as individuals. Women are excluded from public spheres, education has become gender segregated, and their labour rights have all but vanished. The international community has a responsibility to intervene to protect women’s rights, not by recognizing the Taliban as a legitimate government, but by looking at ways –such as leveraging foreign aid – they can pressure the Taliban to respect the rights of women.

Responsibility Sharing: The Global Compact on Refugees

As the number of displaced Afghans continues to rise, Afghans looking to leave the country face a limited range of bad options. Many are forced to shelter in place, waiting for an opportunity to leave while the Taliban goes knocking door to door. Others make the perilous overland journey to Iran, Pakistan, or Tajikistan. But this is not an option for all at risk and the Taliban has established checkpoints to curtail the routes taken by those fleeing. Further, those who do make it into neighbouring countries are faced with bureaucratic roadblocks to them trying to find safety and in some cases even face deportation due to arrival through illegal border crossings. Instead of welcoming fleeing Afghans, countries in the region and further abroad have been closing their borders.

Countries, despite having signed up to the Global Compact on Refugees to commit to coordinated and equitable means of responsibility sharing to providing support to refugees, have engaged in buck-passing. The international community has been failing to rise to the commitments to which it signed on to, and the case of Afghanistan has been no different. Instead of opening its doors, the international community has been focused on containing the crisis within Afghanistan and its neighbours such as Iran and Pakistan. There has been little interest from Western countries to assist in the relocation of fleeing Afghans.

The international community should instead be assisting fleeing Afghans by establishing infrastructure to track where people are going, making sure Afghans have safe countries to land in, and helping Afghans with their paperwork. Further, the international community needs to act quickly and assertively to provide pathways for Afghans – particularly those at high risk such as women, minorities, journalists, judges, lecturers, and members of civil society – to come to places of safe refuge.