The world has been familiar with “boat people” and with huge exodus from crisis-hit Syria and other Middle Eastern nations, fleeing homes, crossing multiple borders and heading for Europe where they were mostly unwanted and were pushed back, at times with violence. Now it is the turn of the Afghans from where droves are being driven out by last month’s political changes.
A humanitarian crisis of gigantic proportions is unfolding in the landlocked nation even as a shocked and surprised world community struggles to come to terms with the country’s takeover by the Taliban. It is accentuated because the new rulers, while giving verbal assurances of safety, are hunting down people who oppose them, on the streets and from their homes.
An equally big contributor to the crisis is the role of Pakistan that has the largest border with Afghanistan, but will not open it to the fleeing Afghans. The near-complete fencing of the border is now being compounded by closing the check-posts and physically deporting those who manage to cross-over. The new refugees are clearly forced and coerced, not allowed to stay even overnight and are handed over across to the Afghan border authorities.
Pakistan’s Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid on September 5 said in Quetta that there were no refugee camps and none was being planned. Three days later, Dawn newspaper reported from the same city that 200 Afghans – families with children – who crossed over from Spin Boldak and Chaman were deported back and the Afghan authorities, in turn, drove them back into the interior.
This is “unlawful forced mass return,” according to Human Rights Watch. There is no surprise in this course of action that is bound to be repeated as Afghans desperately try to flee their country. That part of the Afghan-Pak border was under the Taliban control long before they took Kabul, and elaborate preparations were made well in advance to mutual advantage. The Pakistan authorities had made clear assertions in that regard since May this year, even as the Taliban’s military campaign gained momentum.
Dr Olszewska of the HRW has noted 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.”
But Pakistan has been unrelenting and has made clear its plans not add to the estimated 300,000 Afghan nationals staying there for long. The government has officially cited ‘security’ concerns while analysts and media reports indicate fears of influx of drugs and arms, besides humans caused by conflict in Afghanistan.
But humanitarian crisis it remains, whatever the concerns that are echoed, with much less intensity though, along Afghanistan’s borders with Iran and Central Asia. Pakistan remains the principal hub.
The Crisis Response Journal (CRJ), based in Britain, notes: “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.”
When the Taliban entered Kabul on August 15, the nation’s capital received a whopping 120,000 people. Many stormed the airport trying to flee, with or without visas and other documents, and some became victims of new authorities’ firing and terror attacks by the Islamic State-Khorasan.
After witnessing these horrific scenes, the world community seems to have withdrawn focus on the crisis, perhaps, without bothering to go into who the refugees are and their fears.
Luavut Zahid, CRJ’s Pakistan correspondent, writes that 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.” Zahid states in an emotional tone.
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 recently, explains: “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 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.
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,” Foxley told Zahid. The Kabul airport is well under Taliban’s control to obviate the horrendous scenes that occurred from August 1e5 onwards for the next two weeks. However, the desperation of people to flee remains and that explains the rush to the land border.
With Pakistan playing the ball with the Taliban, the crisis threatens to prolong and needs continued focus, with solid action in the form of pressures on Kabul and Islamabad authorities to work to resolve it and not try to suppress it.