Hundreds of people gather outside the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 17, 2021.

Hundreds of people gather outside the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 17, 2021. AP Photo

The Next Big Refugee Crisis Just Started

The U.S. and its partners should respond to the needs of displaced Afghans, for national security reasons and long-term opportunities.

The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban will likely spark a reinvigorated refugee – and broader forced displacement – crisis in a country where persistent humanitarian needs have doggedly accompanied fragile progress. Unless the U.S. and its partners sufficiently respond to this next big refugee crisis, millions of displaced Afghans in 2021 could make the 2015 migration crisis seem like a geopolitical walk in the park.

Afghans already made up the third-largest group of refugees (2.6 million) in the world at the end of 2020, behind only Syrians (6.7 million) and Venezuelans (4.0 million). Including the estimated 3 million internally displaced people living across the country, almost 6 million Afghans have been forced to leave their homes in recent years even before the Taliban takeover. Many of the roughly 40 million people still in Afghanistan are contemplating escape, especially women and children. It would not be surprising if the number of forcibly displaced Afghans – including refugees – doubles over the next couple of years, though their destinations and scale of displacement depending on at least two factors.

First, Taliban leaders have made it clear that they have no concern for the plight of the people they are forcibly displacing. Though they have shown more geopolitical savvy than in the past and seem eager to govern, their brutality and repression will continue to drive people from home as long as they rule. But Afghanistan currently has no commercial flights and the Taliban control all major border crossings, so much of the forced displacement is likely to be internal, at least at first. 

Which leads me to the second factor. The Taliban takes over during a pandemic when the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide (over 82 million) is at an all-time high and the willingness of rich countries to resettle them is at an all-time low. Neighboring countries typically bear the brunt of refugee hosting duties during forced displacement crises, but Turkey (which hosts the most refugees in the world) and Pakistan (which together with Iran hosts 90 percent of all Afghan refugees) have already banded together to try to stop more Afghans from coming. History suggests fewer Afghans will be able to flee given these constraints, and those who do will be forced into perilous irregular journeys to increasingly unwelcome places.

At peak “migration crisis” levels in 2015, just over 1 million people from Syria, Afghanistan, Nigeria, and elsewhere arrived in Europe, mostly through irregular means. Though by 2016 that number was down to the low hundreds of thousands and has been decreasing ever since, their arrival arguably sparked geopolitical disruptions with far-reaching and lingering consequences. Despite barriers to movement, it is not hard to imagine how Afghans alone could eclipse even these peak figures.

This should concern U.S. national security policymakers. Beyond their increasingly obvious humanitarian needs, displaced Afghans find themselves between a Taliban-sized rock and a closed border-shaped hard place. Pakistan and Turkey have refused them. China does not want them. Iran will keep them in camps. For desperate people, desperate measures will necessarily include escape through perilous terrain smuggled by dangerous groups – smugglers, traffickers, and other organized criminal networks – which see movement of vulnerable people as new opportunities for business, all part of a $6.75 billion global human smuggling industry.

Greater numbers of forcibly displaced people could also exacerbate underlying causes of fragility in the region. Scarce government resources in Iran will be diverted to setting up refugee camps in three border provinces. Pakistan sealing its borders with Afghanistan will require money and manpower in a country already struggling to deal with Covid-19, a stagnant economy, and lingering roots of violent extremism, including within the Pakistani Taliban. 

Beyond the region, America’s European allies are bracing for political repercussions that leave them with few good options: accept refugees and risk populist backlash; refuse them and be accused of inhumanity. Though evidence suggests no causal links between increased refugee flows and increased levels of violent extremism, especially when compared to native-born populations, there is some limited evidence of bad actors traveling along migration routes to enter Europe in 2015, including while posing as refugees. If somehow these rare cases became more prevalent, it could result in a destabilizing backlash against all migrants, many of whom – like Afghans – have nowhere else to go. These concerns will last beyond the headlines of the next few weeks and their implications are cause for humanitarian and geopolitical concern. 

Though a few corrupt elites bear some responsibility for the country’s collapse, the fact that the decades-long experiment foisted upon Afghanistan ultimately failed is not the fault of Afghans, especially the most vulnerable. The U.S. cannot shoulder the responsibility of response alone; but it can lead by example. Humanitarian needs will stretch into the medium and, in some cases, long term. Instead of ten one-year response plans over the next decade, the international community should develop a long-term strategy for how the world – with U.S. leadership – will provide a future to displaced Afghans. This means expediting paperwork processing and greater support to agencies and countries on the front lines of response. 

It also means the opening of doors, especially when displaced Afghans have so few options. It is not only possible for the U.S. itself to accept more refugees after a foreign catastrophe; there is precedent for it doing so. Some 4.5 million Vietnamese people were displaced after the fall of Saigon in 1975, many of whom settled in the U.S. and now own businesses, hold public office, and serve as the diasporic backbones of the communities that welcomed them decades ago. The same can be true of Afghans, if only the United States could see how today’s challenge could be tomorrow’s opportunity. 

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