Afghan refugee crisis: The exodus of nation-builders 

Afghan refugee crisis: The exodus of nation-builders 

Shrinking hope and fear of the future trigger a new wave of refugees from Afghanistan

Afghans walk through a security barrier as they enter Pakistan through a border crossing point in Chaman, Pakistan, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021. Hundreds of Pakistanis and Afghans cross the border daily through Chaman to visit relatives, receive medical treatment and for business-related activities. Pakistani has not placed any curbs on their movement despite recent evacuations from Kabul. Credit: AP/PTI Photo

An adolescent girl with green eyes, wearing a torn red headscarf looking intensely at the camera was an iconic image taken by photojournalist Steve McCurry for the June 1985 cover of the National Geographic. That timeless image of an Afghan refugee girl with striking eyes inspired millions of people worldwide to recognise the anguish and plight of one of the initial waves of refugees from Afghanistan.

Years of violence have profoundly shaken the whole society and pushed a third of Afghanistan's population into exile. Generations of Afghans have witnessed only conflict because of the 40-years-old situation, watching it metamorphose into various forms of violence, from actual war to the ferocity of minefields, destruction of livelihoods and human rights abuses. The recent Taliban takeover of the country has caused a humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan. It has triggered a mass exodus of a new wave of Afghan refugees desperate to flee the clutches of the Taliban. It is important to see them within a broader context of Afghanistan's long-standing displacement crisis.

Waves of Afghan Refugees

Although numbers have fluctuated over the years and various waves identified, the UNHCR (The UN Refugee Agency) estimates about 2.5 million registered refugees from Afghanistan, making it the largest protracted refugee population in Asia and the second-largest in the world.

Track latest updates from Afghanistan here

Four broad waves of Afghan refugees can be identified. The 1979 Soviet intervention of Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 1978 Saur Revolution triggered the first wave of Afghan refugees to seek refuge in neighbouring Iran and Pakistan. The second wave of refugees primarily comprised the Soviet sympathisers who fled Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. The third and fourth waves of refugees from Afghanistan took place between the early 1990s and 2001. It was first due to the conflict and civil war intensifying when various Mujahideen factions were fighting each other to grab power. And when the Taliban unleashed a brutal and repressive regime over roughly three-quarters of Afghanistan they controlled.

Afghanistan returned to the centre of global attention after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon by Al-Qaeda. Being the host of Osama bin Laden, the US launched a bombing campaign against the Taliban forces on October 7 in retaliation. The Taliban strongholds crumbled against the joint offensive launched by the coalition and Northern Alliance forces in the next few weeks. These developments generated a great sense of excitement and optimism among Afghans. Many wanted to seize the opportunity and possibilities that the new era was promising to offer. During the initial years after the US-led intervention, thousands of Afghan refugees and expatriates returned to Afghanistan. They took part in the country's nation-building initiatives and the international community, ushering in a pattern of reverse migration for the first time in Afghanistan's recent history.

Also Read — 'Total failure': The war on terror, 20 years on

Many of these Afghans are fleeing today. The images of deadly chaos at the Kabul airport as security forces try to hold off thousands of Afghans desperate to escape the Taliban have regularly punctuated international headlines since the fall of Kabul on August 15, 2021. The Taliban's return to power has unleashed countless analyses, explanations and rushed post-mortem of the so-called "Global War on Terror" launched by the US twenty years ago. The discussions over the past two weeks have centred around the rationale and efficacy of a rushed withdrawal and the astonishing speed with which the Taliban managed to gain control over Afghanistan since May 2021. While the international media has been covering the mayhem at the Kabul airport and highlighting the desperation of Afghans to flee their country, the focus has been mainly on the refugee destinations. Primary triggers behind this exodus remain relatively unexplored.

Triggers of flight

Over the past 20 years, a generation of Afghans, particularly those from urban areas, have grown up amidst possibilities and opportunities; they are highly sceptical about their future under the Taliban. Today, Afghans are grappling with a sense of fear and despair and are acutely concerned about their shrinking hope of survival under the Taliban regime. 

Also Read — US warns of threat at Kabul airport, tells citizens to 'leave immediately'

Afghan women, in particular, fear that the Taliban will deprive them of their fundamental rights and all that they have worked so hard for will be snatched away once the global attention shifts from Afghanistan. Despite all its flaws, the previous political order could ensure that young Afghans have access to modern values, democracy, rights and liberties and international exposure - Afghans fear that access will be substantially curbed under the Taliban.

Although the Taliban have declared "general amnesty" for government officials, Afghans are unconvinced about their intent. Many fear Afghanistan will become a graveyard of educated people, journalists and human rights activists once the world looks away. The recent overtures by the Taliban may signal a departure from its previous hardline approaches to some but based on the experience of the Taliban's last stint in power between 1996-2001 and being aware of what is happening in the provinces where international media is absent; Afghans refuse to trust the Taliban. They are convinced that this is the same draconian Taliban, dressed up in a new PR machine, and they will show their true colours once the international media leaves Afghanistan. The question of sheer survival is foremost in the minds of Afghans, especially those who were beneficiaries of the US-led era. Thousands of young Afghans trained or educated in foreign countries, including India, are highly cynical about their future and are desperate to flee Afghanistan.

The current wave of Afghan refugees should also be seen within the context of the earlier waves who tried to escape conflict, persecution and violence in their country. Population movement out of Afghanistan has been a consistent phenomenon of its history over the past forty years. Yet, many fleeing today are the ones who returned to Afghanistan post-2001, having trusted the international community and its commitment towards Afghans and Afghanistan. They, unlike their predecessors, feel betrayed.

(The writer is a Research Fellow at New Delhi-based Indian Council of World Affairs. She is the author of Identity and Marginality in India: Settlement Experience of Afghan Migrants, Routledge UK, 2019)

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox