U.S. withdrawal leading to a new migration crisis? The situation in Afghanistan

By Tamara Hegyi, 23rd August 2021

Afghanistan has always been known as a stage for war and hard-to sustain peace. Since 2001 U.S.-led forces have been present in the country, so it is no wonder that President Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan shocked the world. Many experts called the decision a strategic mistake, and now those countries that were at the frontline of the 2015 migration crisis fear that another crisis is coming.

The impact of war – the last 20 years in numbers

Operation Enduring Freedom began on 7 October 2001 with the U.S. and United Kingdom forces launching air strikes against the Taliban in Afghanistan. They have not left the country since then, trying to ensure the proper functioning of the Afghan government and keeping the Taliban fighters at bay.

At the pinnacle of the war nearly 140 000 U.S. and allied forces were in Afghanistan and the Pentagon says that the U.S. has spent $824.9 billion on the war so far, while others estimate the costs to be around $2.26 trillion.[1]

What effect did all those resources have?

Kabul, Afghanistan, Photo by Sohaib Ghyasi on Unsplash

According to Brown University’s Costs of War Project 171 000-174 000 “people have died as a direct result of this war. These figures do not include deaths caused by disease, loss of access to food, water, infrastructure, and/or other indirect consequences of the war.”[2] Out of the 174 000 people, 47 245 were civilians.
For children Afghanistan is viewed to be one of the deadliest places in the world. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan data suggests that at least 7 792 children were killed and 18 662 were injured between 2010 and 2020.[3][4]

Since 2001 the country has seen some positive changes. Both life expectancy and the unemployment rate have improved. There was an overall increase in the standard of living – in 2001 Afghanistan’s Human Development Index was 0.37, now it stands at 0.511.[5]
Until the mid-2010s the country saw a double-digit economic growth as a result of international aid. According to a Financial Times article, because of the past 20 years, currently Afghanistan’s economy is mainly built upon international financial support. If those aids are cut, which is likely to happen under the Taliban control, the country’s economy might collapse.[6]
Despite the economic expansion the poverty rate has worsened significantly – as of 2019 54.5% of the population lives below the national poverty line (33.7% in 2007).[7] It seems that poverty is directly linked to the degree of influence the Taliban have on the country. As violence rises, more and more young people leave the country and skilled workers are less likely to return to Afghanistan. Another problem according to the World Bank is that the country’s economic growth was unsuccessful in reducing poverty. “International spending created jobs in the public, health and education services sectors and benefited high-conflict areas the most. It didn’t raise productivity in the agriculture sector, which employs most of Afghanistan’s poor people”. [8]

Regarding education: throughout the years we could see a rise in enrolment but, as stated by a 2019 UNICEF report, still “an estimated 3.7 million children are out-of-school in Afghanistan – 60% of them are girls.”[9] The youth literacy rate for 15-24 years is 65%, well below the South Asia regional average (90%).[10]
In many parts of the country – especially in rural areas – the lack of infrastructure, such as insufficient transportation, shortage of schools and the absence of proper sanitation facilities, is considered to be the main obstacle to education.
In case of the girls, low attendance is related to sociocultural factors and the role women play in the society. It is also worth mentioning that even though it is illegal in the country, child marriage is still widespread in Afghanistan. According to UNICEF “girls continue to marry very young – 17 per cent before their 15th birthday”.[11]

The Women, Peace and Security Index ranks 167 countries on women’s equality and wellbeing. In 2019 Afghanistan ranked number 166. In some indicators the country is doing relatively well but shows a very poor performance in others:

  • Parliamentary representation (seats held by women, %): 27.3
  • Employment (women ages 25+, %): 51.6
  • Education (women’s mean years of schooling, ages 25+): 1.9
  • Discriminatory work norms (males 15+ who agree it is unacceptable for women to work, %): 51
  • Intimate partner violence (experienced by women in the past year, %): 46.1[12]

U.S. withdrawal

As we can see after 20 years of war Afghanistan’s situation was not exactly ideal, but by witnessing the small improvements that occurred throughout the years people could still hope for a better future. Until they could not.

On 14 April 2021 President Biden announced his decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by 11 September, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

After the announcement intelligence analysts warned that this decision may lead to a situation similar to what had happened in Iraq after the U.S. withdrawal – civil war and the renewed presence of the al-Qaeda. The withdrawal does not mean the end of the war in Afghanistan and the al-Qaeda and the Taliban government are just as strong and ready to fight as before.

On 1 May the U.S. began the final troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Since then the Taliban territorial gain seems to be unstoppable. In the first weeks of August many provincial capitals fell to the Taliban and on 15 August the Taliban took Afghanistan’s capital city, Kabul.

Refugee camp in Greece, Photo by Julie Ricard on Unsplash

New migration crisis?

“I am extremely concerned by the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan – particularly the impact on mobile and displaced populations, including returnees.”
António Vitorino, International Organization for Migration Director General
[13]

Though the exact consequences of the withdrawal only now start to take shape, we can say with a high level of certainty that many people will be forced to flee their country, causing, of what some EU countries are afraid, a new migration crisis.

Due to the country’s troubled history Afghans have always been faced with the hard choice of leaving their country. After the Soviet invasion, in the 1980s and 1990s, Afghans constituted the largest refugee population in the world. The situation became worse when the Taliban took control of the country in 1996.[14]
As the U.S. intervention established some form of peace and stability, Afghans began to return with the help of the United Nations Refugee Agency through a voluntary repatriation program.
Even despite some positive changes, during the 2015 migration crisis the second most asylum applications were handed in by people from Afghanistan.[15]
According to the UN Refugee Agency in 2019 Afghans made up the third-largest forcibly displaced population in the world, with 6 million refugees and internally displaced people.[16]

Throughout the years most Afghan refugees were hosted in Iran and Pakistan, an estimated 3 million people in Iran alone.[17] However, in 2018 Iran’s economy took a downturn and in the next year the country was gravely hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2020 a draft legislation announced that undocumented migrants would face prison (up to 25 years). In addition, if there is a strong suspicion that a vehicle is carrying illegal migrants, police officers would be allowed to fire at it.
As a result of these events, many Afghan refugees decided to move on to Turkey and found themselves stranded there due to the movement restrictions that were implemented to mitigate the spreading of Covid-19. As they do not enjoy a legally defined status in Turkey, many Afghans fear they won’t be able to support themselves and their families. In a recent survey almost 50% of Afghans said that they intended to leave Turkey and resume their journey to Europe.[18][19]

Now once again, Afghans are forced to leave their country.
Those who can, get out of their city even before the Taliban’s arrival and then move from one city to another. Most Afghans start their journey to Europe from the south-western province of Nimruz. With the help of smugglers and human traffickers they leave Afghanistan and through Pakistan or Iran they continue towards Turkey and then Europe. Locals estimate that around 2500 people cross the border daily.

As Stuart Anderson, executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy, points out there are three categories of Afghans most at risk of the Taliban retaliation. “First, […] are those individuals who worked with the U.S. military. […] A second group includes men and women who worked with U.S. and Western governmental or nongovernmental organizations in capacities that put them at significant risk. Third, are Afghans whose actions or political opinions make it impossible for them to live safely under Taliban rule.”[20]
Still, they are not the only ones leaving. People are leaving because they are afraid for their lives and feel like their fundamental rights, such as right to education and health care, are in danger.

For the first half of the year the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan “documents 5 183 civilian casualties (1 659 killed and 3 524 injured), a 47 per cent increase compared with the same period in 2020”.[21]
Many Afghans voice their fear of the Taliban reinstating their harsh rule and their harsh version of Islamic law over the country while restricting the work of journalists. During the Taliban’s earlier rule, it was prohibited for women to work outside their home or attend school. They were required to wear the burqa and whenever they went outside they had to be accompanied by a male relative. In the past they carried out public executions and it was reported that their commanders ran a network of human trafficking. The Taliban also made modern education restricted and welcomed only Islamic religious schools.
The Taliban issued several statements, saying that there would be no revenge attacks and their new rule would be different from the past one.
Contrary to their words, according to the semi-official Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, after seizing the Malistan district the Taliban killed at least 27 (other sources mention 43) civilians who had worked with the government.[22]

In the bordering countries the number of new refugees is rapidly increasing every day because of the Taliban territorial gains. According to the International Organization for Migration, since the U.S.-led forces began their withdrawal in May, the number of Afghans illegally crossing the border has increased by 30-40%. The UN reports that in the first week of July, due to the fights in the northern districts, more than 56 000 people were displaced. As stated by the International Organization for Migration, we can count “more than 359 000 newly displaced” Afghans this year.[23]
Even though, many civil organizations alongside the UN and IOM try to help and support the people of Afghanistan, their efforts might not be enough. As the situation is getting worse by the day, with the Taliban violence spreading in the country, the third wave of Covid-19 and a severe drought, more and more people are forced to flee and it is unlikely that the bordering states and Turkey will be able to cope with this influx of refugees and stop the secondary movement to Europe.

In these uncertain times one thing is for sure, with the fall of Kabul, only quick action and diplomacy from all countries, directly and indirectly involved, can save us from a major humanitarian crisis.

[1][2] https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/figures/2021/human-and-budgetary-costs-date-us-war-afghanistan-2001-2021
[3] https://interactive.aljazeera.com/aje/2021/afghanistan-visualising-impact-of-war/index.html
[4] https://unama.unmissions.org/protection-of-civilians-reports
[5] http://hdr.undp.org/en/countries/profiles/AFG
[6] https://www.ft.com/content/bfdb94a5-654b-4286-8da9-34c0ff3b88aa
[7] https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SI.POV.NAHC?name_desc=false&locations=AF
[8] https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/poverty/publication/poverty-reduction-in-afghanistan-despite-economic-growth-widening-inequality
[9] https://www.unicef.org/afghanistan/education
[10] https://data.unicef.org/topic/education/overview/
[11] https://www.unicef.org/afghanistan/education
[12] https://giwps.georgetown.edu/the-index/
[13] https://www.iom.int/news/iom-director-general-statement-situation-afghanistan
[14] Monsutti, A. (2008). Afghan Migratory Strategies and the Three Solutions to the Refugee Problem. Refugee Survey Quarterly, 27(1), 58–73. doi:10.1093/rsq/hdn007
[15] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34131911
[16] https://www.unhcr.org/flagship-reports/globaltrends/globaltrends2019/
[17] https://www.unhcr.org/ir/refugees-in-iran/
[18] https://mixedmigration.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/115_destination_unknown_research_report.pdf
[19] https://www.justsecurity.org/75859/bidens-decision-to-pull-troops-from-afghanistan-risks-a-major-refugee-crisis/
[20] https://www.forbes.com/sites/stuartanderson/2021/08/15/america-must-save-afghan-refugees-from-the-taliban/?sh=18a9c16045fa
[21] https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/EN_3.pdf
[22] https://www.aihrc.org.af/home/thematic-reports/91130
[23] https://www.iom.int/news/iom-director-general-statement-situation-afghanistan