The Afghan Refugee Crisis: Multiple Origins, Few Solutions

By Michael Jacobs

Starting in the spring of 2015, the number of refugees and migrants arriving in Europe skyrocketed, catching many observers by surprise. Most readers who are aware of this issue know that the primary country of origin for these refugees is Syria, a country in the midst of a brutal civil war. What most people wouldn’t guess, however, is the refugees’ second most popular country of origin: Afghanistan.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Syrians make up 52 percent of all Mediterranean Sea refugee arrivals in 2015, followed by Afghans at 19 percent and Iraqis at 9 percent – less than half the number coming from more distant Afghanistan. Furthermore, this doesn’t take into account refugees arriving via the Arctic Route, where over the last 3 weeks Afghans outnumbered Syrians seeking refuge in Norway.

Migrants of unspecified ethnicity cross underneath unfinished border fence from Serbia into Hungary, August 2015.

Migrants of unspecified ethnicity cross underneath unfinished border fence from Serbia into Hungary, August 2015. 

There are many reasons for this influx of Afghan refugees into Europe, and many are unsurprisingly related to conditions within Afghanistan itself. According to public opinion polling conducted by the Asia Foundation, Afghans’ optimism about the overall direction of their country fell to its lowest level in a decade in 2015 with only 37 percent of respondents saying their country is moving in the right direction – down sharply from 55 percent in 2014.  The primary reason for this drop in optimism is an increasing perception of insecurity among Afghans, with 45 percent of Afghans citing security concerns as the biggest reason their country is moving in the wrong direction, up six percent from last year. Unemployment is the second most popular reason for pessimism, cited by 25 percent of respondents. For youth, unemployment is seen as by far the biggest problem with 71 percent choosing it as one of the biggest issues for people ages 15-24. Clearly, Afghans are now less likely to see a future for themselves in Afghanistan than at any time in years, and this is driving a new wave of refugees out of the country.

What sets the Afghan refugee crisis apart from other ongoing refugee crises is the way in which it is also being fueled by developments outside Afghanistan. Due to its long history with conflict, millions of Afghans fled their home country and moved to or were born in neighboring Iran and Pakistan prior to the ongoing war in Afghanistan – in some cases decades ago. Recently they have found that they are no longer welcome in what were traditionally the primary destinations for Afghan refugees, and new refugees leaving Afghanistan today and arriving in Iran and Pakistan are likewise finding a bitter reception.  This means that there are multiple source countries for Afghan refugees, and increasingly they have no alternative but to move to Europe.

For example, authorities in Pakistan say they plan to repatriate the 1.5 million Afghans now living legally in Pakistan over the next two years, and presumably step up efforts to remove the estimated 1 million Afghans living there illegally as well. To put those numbers into perspective, the UNHCR estimates that almost 800,000 refugees arrived in Europe via the Mediterranean Sea in 2015. If just half of the 1.5 million legal Afghans who are forced out of Pakistan choose to travel to Europe instead of resettling in their increasingly insecure homeland this year’s staggering refugee influx will immediately be matched before factoring in the Syria crisis or Afghans unlawfully living in Pakistan at all.

Life for Afghan refugees in Iran may serve as an example of what is to come for those in Pakistan. Like Pakistan, Iran has long played host to some one million registered Afghans. Iran’s once hospitable approach to its Afghan guests is changing, however: In recent years, Iran has deported hundreds of thousands of Afghans and banned them from living or working in more than a dozen provinces. Tens of thousands of new Afghan refugees attempting to cross through Iran on their way to Europe face arrest, robbery, beatings, and forced labor according to reports from the Washington Post.

European policies towards Afghan refugees are becoming less friendly as well. In Austria, where 10,500 Afghans have applied for asylum this year compared to 13,000 Syrians, the government has proposed new laws aimed at deterring Afghan refugees by imposing burdensome requirements on Afghans to have health insurance, an independent source of income, and an apartment before bringing family members to Austria – a move criticized by the UNHCR. Norway is warning Afghans crossing from Russia that they may be sent back to Kabul, and Finland suspended decisions on Afghan asylum claims. Sadly, the November 13 Paris terror attacks will not help matters for Afghan refugees in Europe. This will likely boost anti-refugee political parties such as Hungary’s Fidesz party whose immigration clampdown resulted in a new jump in the polls.

The Afghan refugee crisis is about to go from bad to worse, and the United States will have limited options for addressing it. It is therefore worth examining what options the United States has for managing this crisis, and what the response has looked like so far (to be continued in part 2).

Michael Jacobs is a consultant with the Project on Prosperity and Development at CSIS.

Photo courtesy of Gémes Sándor under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic license.


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