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The longest hour – Afghanistan’s refugee question takes centre stage 

Luavut Zahid, CRJ’s Pakistan correspondent, takes an in-depth look at the implications for those fleeing Afghanistan 
 
A picture of a US military cargo plane, almost bursting at the seams with more than six hundred Afghans, went viral just a heartbeat ago. The Taliban have taken Afghanistan, and it took them just a heartbeat to do so too.

evac

A US Air Force C-17 Globemaster III safely transported approximately 640 Afghan citizens from Hamid Karzai International Airport on August 15, 2021
(US Air Force courtesy photo)

Chaotic scenes were witnessed at airports as flights were shut down, resulting in people blocking the tarmac and climbing into evacuation planes. Some fell to their death as they attempt to flee the country. The situation put a large question mark on what will become of the people, and more so of the refugees running for their lives. 

Irrespective of the disturbing imagery, the truth is that the country’s refugee issue is neither new nor recent. The displacement of Afghans have been happening piece by piece for decades now. According to UNHCR numbers, this year alone, more than 400,000 Afghans have been displaced from their homes, fleeing as the terror outfit claimed territories under its control, adding to the 2.9 million who were already internally displaced by the end of 2020, with the overall numbers coming up to five million. 

Kabul, which seems to be the epicentre of the current turmoil, was the preferred choice for as many as 120,000 Afghans displaced from other rural areas and provincial towns. 

The faces of those who flee 
Who is trying to leave? The answer is simple, and then not so simple. At a glance, it would appear that anyone and everyone is on the run. Those active in military or government ranks have a genuine reason to leave. They are joined by activists, liberal thinkers – and a good proportion of regular people who have given in to the panic. 

It isn’t just the Taliban that people are worried about, it’s the chaos that results from such a situation – to which Afghanistan is no stranger. Would you wait for criminals, vandals, robbers and rapists or would you run? That’s a question those escaping have tried to answer with their feet.

I spoke to Dr Liza Schuster, a Sociologist at City University of London about the on-ground situation. She’s spent six of the last ten years in Afghanistan and was in Kabul at the time of writing this piece, waiting to hear about evacuations and helping to co-ordinate escapes, despite limited resources. 

Speaking about the scenes around her as the Taliban took Kabul, she says: “The people who are really afraid are those who have been educated, those people who have been active in civil society and those people working for the government. I can see the the barrels of incinerators as people are burning papers and trying to destroy any documents that might tie them to either the government or to civil society and people are trying to keep their head down.”

She also points out that the Taliban, despite public promises of pardons and forgiveness, seem to be going from house to house in a witch hunt. “They are searching for official vehicles and official documents and they're doing this in areas that are mostly occupied by Hazaras,” she explains.

As if it were a premonition, only a few hours after this conversation it became apparent that the Taliban were attacking women and children trying to leave the country. 

No good exits
For an Afghan, leaving the country at no point means heading to greener pastures. A majority will settle into harsh camps, where the quality of life is abysmal, even with tireless efforts from various aid agencies. Tim Foxley, an independent political and military analyst, has been studying the country since 2001. A former analyst for the British Ministry of Defence and the Swedish Ministry of Defence, he has a deep insight into the social and political fabric of the country. “No one wants to leave their home,” he says. 

“People will leave based on simple human calculations that people have to make in such horrendous situations – what is the least dangerous for me and my family? Perhaps we can sit it out for a few weeks or months and then return?” he asks. 

It boils down to which scenario is more lethal and life threatening, a better life is nowhere in the mix for those desperate enough to cling to planes leaving a runway. 

It is pertinent to note that Afghans are reacting with panic to the Taliban takeover because they have lived it before. Those too young to remember have grown with stories of the time under Tailiban rule. The atrocities and terror attacks are etched in the memory of several generations of Afghans. 

Dr Zuzanna Olszewska is an Associate Professor in the Social Anthropology of the Middle East, School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, and the Tutorial Fellow in Archaeology and Anthropology, St. John's College at University of Oxford. She has worked with the Afghan refugee community in Iran for more than a decade, and notes that women and minorities, especially Shi’as and Hazaras, have much to fear. “Some, such as those who clung to departing American planes, are clearly prepared to risk everything. The Taliban so far seems to be showing restraint, but nobody knows how long this will last or what its policies will be, and there is a large gap between the statements of the Taliban representatives in Doha and those of their commanders on the ground. For example, if women are prevented from working outside their homes as they were in the 1990s, thousands of families could lose their livelihoods,” she says. 

ACSSU-OFFICIAL-20210818-0129-0

Civilian charter flight arriving at a Midlands airport from Kabul on August 18, 2021. The flight carried eligible Afghans under the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy Programme and British Nationals who were based in Afghanistan. The UK Government has now relocated more than 2,000 Afghans under the ARAP scheme since it began on April 1, 2021. The UK says it will continue to fulfil the international obligations and moral commitments
(Image UK MOD Crown Copyright)

The takeover has definitely taken place in an entirely new era. One where the 1950s definition of a family unit is entirely outdated. Women have to step up, not because of empowerment, but because of necessity. It’s not surprising that the UNHCR notes that “Some 80 per cent of nearly a quarter of a million Afghans forced to flee since the end of May are women and children.” 

These concerns are echoed by Foxley, who says only time can tell the degree of change this ‘changed’ Taliban will stick to. “Some of the early indications from areas they previously captured – such as Kandahar – are not encouraging. But the fact is we just do not know yet. And we should perhaps remember that what happens in Kabul may not be the same in other provinces, where it may well be more repressive,” he asserts. 

The world is watching, and the Taliban is definitely putting on a show. 

“The Taliban leadership will be keen to present Kabul to western observers as relaxed and tolerant – well, by their standards anyway. It also raises a question about the extent to which the Taliban leadership – older and perhaps slightly more pragmatic and willing to acknowledge that they made mistakes during their rule in the 1990s – are able to control the young mujahideen fighters who were doing the actual fighting in the provinces,” Foxley says.

Life under a tent 
It’s no secret that life as a refugee is difficult, laced with lack of structure, resources and, in many cases, disdain from the locals. Even with NGOs and aid agencies trying to step up the game, the camps that most refugees end up in continue to exist in abysmal conditions. Dr Schuster explains that the exit itself is precarious and expensive. It’s a game of resources versus desperation, and more often than not resources win. “Both Pakistan and Iran have become very unwelcoming to Afghans and the borders being closed makes it really difficult for people to flee on foot,” she says. 

The reality is that those fleeing are the poorest of people and in present day Afghanistan without enough money for a ticket and a visa means you’re effectively going to end up a victim to the cartels and traffickers. 

“For a family of five to leave Afghanistan regularly with documents you should count on having at least $40,000. Exceptions are going to be made for some people: both the US and the UK have agreed to take in people, as have France and some other European countries. However, this will be a small number of people,” Dr Schuster laments, adding that most Afghans will end up in prisons, not because of the Taliban, but because of governments who do not want them in their countries. 

“The reality is that under normal circumstances there is no legal way to seek asylum. What we're seeing here in Afghanistan with a small group of countries granting asylum, or small group of countries taking Afghans out on special planes, is very exceptional,” she told me. It’s not enough to have resources, however. Even if someone were able to cough up the money needed to get out of the country, getting a passport, a visa, and literally finding a way inside an airport and then a plane, have become nearly impossible. 

A tainted map 
Many view the manner in which security forces have been pulled has contributed to the refugee crisis. However, it is worth remembering that the withdrawal isn’t a complete surprise. “The international withdrawal was announced by Barack Obama in 2009 and began in 2011. In around 2010 there were 140,000 ISAF troops in the country. And the withdrawal deadline – which was achieved – was December 2014. Only 10 –12,000 remained. This reduced to 8,000 and then 2,500 during the Trump era,” Foxley notes. 

Biden’s decisions aren’t entirely his own, he was: “Faced with a poor hand to play and decided to go with it. The Taliban kept advancing, ignoring calls for dialogue and, suddenly, it was too late for anyone to do anything: dozens of American aircraft rushing in and out simply heightens the sense of panic amongst the people. But the Americans are going to get their people out without worrying too much about what other people think about that,” Foxley told me.  

Despite the involvement and politics of the countries that fought the two-decade long war, the fact is that at present there are few genuine allies where refugees are concerned. The US itself has only allowed a few hundred people safety as refugees within this year. 

Instead of shouldering the responsibility of these refugees, the US is looking for other countries that can taken them on, distancing itself from the problem altogether. If anything, Dr Schuster says the small help extended to refugees will be used as a PR device. “Europeans will have a small number of Afghan asylum seekers that they can trumpet and use to demonstrate just how liberal and democratic they are and how much they uphold human rights but those few people will just be used as a fig leaf to disguise the utter hypocrisy and moral emptiness of European states,” she says. 

The sentiments in the neighbouring countries are no better. For instance, both Iran and Pakistan have been bracing for and against the storm. 

Iran has camps along its eastern border to accommodate refugees, in a bid to ensure the presence is temporary at best. This is wildly in contrast to the past, where refugees were able to find home and shelter in main cities. 

Dr Olszewska explains that Iran has been the gateway or pitstop through which refugees move closer toward Turkey and Europe to look for asylum. “This trend is only likely to escalate. EU countries are already worried about this; five countries last week requested that the European Commission insist on their right to deport failed Afghan asylum seekers. Events subsequently proved what a heartless move this was. Germany and the Netherlands backtracked and paused all deportations, joining Finland, Sweden and Norway in this commitment. Other EU countries have yet to act, yet it would be unconscionable for them not to do this,” she informs. 

M Nazif Shahrani, professor of political anthropology and Central Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Indiana University, notes that countries like Turkey are the obvious choice for fleeing refugees. If anything, long before the takeover between 1,000-1,500 Afghans were crossing into the country hoping to reach Europe. “Turks are also becoming very conscientious about stopping that flow,” he notes. 

Dr Olszewska comments that many withdrawing NATO countries will end up granting asylum or other visas to people who were employed or connected to them previously. “Denmark, for example, has pledged to take forty-five people it had employed. But this will take time and may get messy. For instance, the US will not take everyone directly, but some Afghans will be temporarily hosted in Albania while their visas are processed,” she says. 

Where Iran is one option, the other neighbour is Pakistan, which has tightened its shared border with Afghanistan to keep refugees out. Over half of the last decade has been spent by the country essentially harassing refugees into repatriation. 

Pakistan actions amount to an: "Unlawful forced mass return," according to Human Rights Watch. In some sense the current course of action is not a surprise, Dr Olszewska noted adding that the “The current partial border closure is two-way, as the Taliban have closed the border on their side in Spin Boldak to pressure Pakistan to ease some of its restrictions. It is vital that the border is opened for humanitarian aid to enter Afghanistan and for people wishing to leave to be able to do so.” 

Another reason that refugees will still push to enter Pakistan is the existing camps in the country. People have connections in Pakistan, many of them have been there before and it's possible for them to cross the borders again easily so it's a question of ease,” Shahrani says.

Dr Rebwar Fatah, a specialist focused on immigration issues, noted that those heading to the West will likely be young, fit individuals who are able to take on the very dangerous journey. Many will die along the way from the cold, hunger, and travelling across seas. “It is difficult to predict which countries will be the main sites for refugees to turn to. However, usually in these situations, communities head to countries where they already have a substantial community,” he says. 

Dr Olszewska feels that the potential for a much worse humanitarian crisis, including Covid outbreaks, could be on the horizon. “All concerned nations should make the humanitarian situation their utmost priority and do all they can to ensure that people's rights are respected, and they have access to adequate food, water, sanitation and health care. Afghan asylum seekers should be quickly granted prima facie refugee status – this is a well-established principle of international refugee protection as per the UNHCR, enacted ‘on the basis of readily apparent, objective circumstances in the country of origin’,” she asserts.

The future 
To say that the current Taliban takeover is nothing like those witnessed in the past is fairly accurate. The propaganda and PR tactics that are in play have not gone unnoticed. 

While releasing videos of spokespersons assuring women they can continue to go to work, the Taliban has simultaneously removed women anchors from their positions. Activists are being hunted from door to door. If anything, women who took any form of public role are now fearing for their lives. 

Dr Schuster advises that people who have remained behind with no way out try to blend in. Meanwhile, Shahrani notes that the current iteration of the Taliban is attempting to act slightly better. “There is no wholesale violence against the people, and they are communicating that they are not interested in harming people,” he says. 

Foxley says that even with its current stance, the Taliban’s history cannot be denied or whitewashed. And despite fears and scepticism: “The fact is we just do not know yet. And we should perhaps remember that what happens in Kabul may not be the same in the provinces, where it may well be more repressive. The Taliban leadership will be keen to present Kabul to western observers as relaxed and tolerant – well, by their standards anyway,” he notes. 

The expert went on to question the extent to which the outfit’s leadership will acknowledge the mistakes made during the 1990s. “Will they be able to control the young mujahideen fighters who were doing the actual fighting in the provinces?” he wonders.  

Dr Rebwar further highlights the fragmented state of the outfit itself. “It is very difficult to know exactly what the Taliban is now because they are an amalgamation of different groups, tribes and sects. The group is also probably being influenced by different outside powers. Because of this, it is difficult to predict what shape Taliban rule will take.”

There is also the issue of the gaps left by those on the run. The country will lose a population of working people, contributing in many ways. “This is a tragedy in the long-term because these are exactly the sort of people needed to rebuild Afghanistan. The Taliban do seem to understand this – I saw that they are offering an amnesty for government officials to return to work. The Taliban might be expert fighters, but they are now going to have to run and administrator major modern cities,” Foxley says. 

However, the one thing almost everyone seemed to be waiting for, is the dwindling of civil liberties. Dr Olszewska agrees that despite the restraint being shown by the Taliban, no one knows how long it will last, nor what policies it will bring about. 

If the Taliban is to become a legitimate government, there are things it must do. “Taliban must create a decent government and filling the gap filling the power vacuum is it has been created in the last few days in a country and trying to build trust this is the most important commodity in the country,” Shahrani insists. 
However, the reality is that only a handful of hours after promising the country and its people peace, the Taliban used aggression instead of words. At the time of writing this, at least a dozen of people had been wounded, while two died in clashes that took place over the Taliban’s new flag. The organisation may claim to have come with leniency in mind, but at the first sign of protest it chose to open fire on unarmed citizens.  

It is a long road ahead for the country, and a longer road still for the refugees hanging in the balance. 

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