The Pak-aided Taliban’s violent military capture of Afghanistan has triggered a grave humanitarian crisis, with millions of Afghans abandoning their homes to escape the Taliban rule and finding no place to go, and millions living as refugees in different countries haunted by the return of the nightmare of remaining country-less people. The grim image of hundreds of Afghans, men, women and children, trying to hang on to transport planes taking off and many crushing to death in the process is a telling image of the unfolding tragedy of Afghan people.
According to the United Nation High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 558,000 Afghans have fled their homes since January 2021. Eighty percent of them are women and children. After the Taliban seizure in August, these numbers have multiplied several hundred times. The UNHCR estimates that without about 515000 Afghans likely to flee across the borders in the coming days, the situation would turn out to be a humanitarian crisis far worse than that of Syria and Iraq in recent times.
Afghans, after Syrians and Venezuelans, account for the third largest population of forced migrants in the world. Over 10 percent of the world’s refugees are Afghans. This was before the Taliban took over Kabul. The situation is even worse today–apart from the Taliban, Afghans have been hit hard by Covid epidemic and a severe drought, forcing millions to leave their homes, and now their country.
There are two countries where the Afghans fled in times of crisis–Iran and Pakistan. As of December 2020, Pakistan had 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees and Iran hosted 780,000. In addition, 1 million unregistered Afghans live in Pakistan and more than 2 million Afghans live in Iran in irregular status.Both countries are reeling from their own set of crises and have made it clear that Afghan refugees are not welcome any longer. Their life has not been one of comfort and safety–they often, both in Iran and Pakistan, face harassment at the hands of police and intelligence agencies, bear suspicion and animosity from local communities and draw little help from the government. Both the countries have indulged in forced repatriation, a crime no less worse for Afghans than being hounded out of homes by the Taliban.
Over the years, Pakistan has been trying to send back as many Afghan refugees/ These exercises have been examples of gross human rights violations, largely unnoticed by the international community caught in the turmoil of an unending war. Pakistan forced over 365,000 refugees and more than 200,000 irregular migrants to return to Afghanistan in just the second half of 2016, in what Human Rights Watch called “the world’s largest unlawful mass forced return of refugees in recent times.” Iran has been sending unregistered Afghans at a much greater rate. In 2020, more than 859,000 Afghans with irregular status in Iran were forcibly returned to Afghanistan. The sorry plight of Afghan refugees in Iran hit headlines in May 2020 when 45 migrant workers reportedly drowned in the Harirud River after being forced into the water at gunpoint by Iranian border guards.
To deal with the refugees this time, Iran has set up camps along its eastern border to house refugees, a clear sign of the country’s intention to host the refugees only temporarily. This is far different from the past when Iran used to make the refugees welcome, find them better places to stay and work in cities.
The new wave of Afghans fleeing the Taliban will face even more difficulties with Pakistan clearly erecting barriers to stop further influx of Afghan refugees into their cities and towns. Unlike 2001, there is now a border fence on the Durand Line patrolled by armed guards ready to shoot. The official border checkposts are proving to be even more access points for the refugees as they are forcibly turned back at gun points. What is making matters worse is the Taliban ordering sealing of borders, at Spin Boldar for instance, with Pakistan and Iran and treating those fleeing the country as traitors.
For millions of Afghans fleeing the cruel Taliban regime is as perilous as living under its evil shadow–a grim humanitarian crisis the world is not prepared to face.