Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Nov 25, 2021
The global community needs to address the Afghanistan refugee crisis if it aims to achieve the SDGs by 2030.
Afghan refugee crisis and its impact on Sustainable Development Goals

Zaki Anwari, a 19-year-old Afghan national football player, had died trying to escape Afghanistan by jumping on the departing United States Air Force plane on 18 August 2021. The heart-wrenching images of Zaki's death and the desperate crowd at the Kabul International Airport are still fresh in the everyday memories. They wanted to leave Afghanistan; the reason was the return of the Taliban after 20 long years. In the past (1996–2001), the Taliban rule was synonymous with human rights violations and atrocities against minorities and women. The Taliban is a Pashtun-dominated organisation; thus, non-Pashtuns are worried about their future. Earlier, the Taliban imposed stringent social strictures due to its orthodox interpretation of Islam, as it opposed girls' education. During the Taliban reign, women literacy in Afghanistan was as low as 15 percent; it improved and reached 30 percent only in 2018. The apprehension of ordinary Afghans is, therefore, discernible, and most of them want to flee the country in search of a safe, stable, and peaceful destination. This will cause a wave of immigration and burden the international community, committed to attaining the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.

Even if we discount the present turmoil, Afghan refugees are the third-largest in the world. As per Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, almost 2.6 million Afghans are already registered refugees residing in different parts of the world. The precarious condition of Afghans could be estimated by the fact that some 3 million are internally displaced. According to recent estimates, 73,000 Afghans fled the country along with retreating American forces. Nearly 240,000 people in Afghanistan have been internally displaced since May 2021, because coalition forces started withdrawing. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), migration from Afghanistan is likely to continue in future, with some 500,000 Afghans moving out of the country.

These are alarming figures, and in all likelihood, the situation may not improve soon. The deteriorating security situation is a major cause of migration from and within Afghanistan. Recently, Islamic State–Khorasan (IS-K) had carried out deadly suicide attacks in Kunduz and Kandahar, killing and injuring scores of innocent Shia Muslims. While the Taliban vows to tackle the IS-K, it appears to be a daunting task without some international support. Secondly, Afghanistan is facing a severe economic crisis. Afghanistan is an aid-dependent country; almost 21 percent of the Afghan's Gross National Income (GNI) consisted of foreign aid. The international community did not appreciate the sudden takeover of power by the Taliban. Moreover, the interim Taliban government has failed to generate confidence in the major donors, and most are still hesitant to deal with the Taliban.

As per Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, almost 2.6 million Afghans are already registered refugees residing in different parts of the world.

After its withdrawal, the US had frozen some US $9 billion Afghan foreign exchange reserves. Even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB) are tied with international norms and cannot rescue Afghanistan unless members’ nod. The IMF programmes in Afghanistan are put on hold, including Afghan access to Special Drawing Rights (SDRs). Similarly, WB also halted its projects in Afghanistan. In its recently shared regional economic outlook, the IMF estimated that the Afghan economy will contract by 30 percent and is under severe fiscal crisis. According to the United National Development Programme analysis, 38 million Afghans are at the risk of getting into poverty and facing acute food shortages. In this regard, it is essential to note IMF's prediction that the fragile economic situation would “fuel a surge in Afghan refugees”.

The link between the Afghan crisis and SDGs

Now let us discuss how the Afghan situation will have an impact on attaining SDGs. In December 2018, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) approved the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR). The GCR is not legally binding on the member states. Nonetheless, it explicitly links with SDGs as it ensures that “stateless persons are not left behind in development processes and that displacement is addressed through inclusive and comprehensive approaches”.  Succinctly, without addressing the refugee issue, we will not be able to accomplish SDGs by 2030 and in this Afghanistan issue is pertinent. While talking about the Afghan refugees, first and foremost is the role played by neighbouring bordering countries, including Pakistan, Iran, and Central Asian Republics. At present, the maximum number of Afghan refugees are staying in Pakistan, and their number is 1.4 million. In Iran, the number of registered Afghan refugees is 780,000. This time both Pakistan and Iran are quite hesitant to take more refugees. Both these countries want the fleeing Afghans to stay in camps near borders but have to return once the situation improves in Afghanistan. In other words, camps are temporary arrangements and people staying there will remain in a vulnerable condition, that too when the world is battling a deadly COVID-19 pandemic. Only a proper refugee status guarantees some economic and social rights.

Likewise, Central Asian Republics are also dragging their feet and unwilling to take in Afghans as refugees. As per reports, both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan had negotiated with the Taliban about border security, basically for the reason to avoid refugee flow. Amongst the Central Asian Republics, it was Tajikistan that initially expressed willingness to accommodate some 100,000 Afghans. Although, recently, there has been a perceptible change in Dushanbe's approach towards Afghan refugees. The Tajik government now cites a lack of infrastructure and monetary constraints as factors for not allowing Afghans into its territory. Even Moscow tacitly endorsed the coming of the Taliban, viewed Afghan refugees from a security lens and perceived them as a threat.

As per reports, both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan had negotiated with the Taliban about border security, basically for the reason to avoid refugee flow.

All these might appear as a harsh response by the neighbouring Afghan countries, but receiving Afghan refugees is not easy; it requires substantial monetary support if a country has to follow the GCR. Tajikistan appealed to the international community to help it because its economy is not robust enough to support refugees. According to the IMF, the annual cost of hosting the Afghan refugees will be “US $100 million in Tajikistan (1.3  percent of gross domestic product), about US $300 million in Iran (0.03  percent of GDP) and more than US $ 500 million in Pakistan (0.2 percent of GDP) ”. Several rich western countries too came forward to take the Afghan refugees like “Canada is willing to take some 200,000 vulnerable Afghans, the United Kingdom some 20,000 Afghan in the long term. Australia is also willing to increase the intake”. This approach of the West is appreciable, but the numbers they are willing to accept is minuscule. Interestingly, European countries are not forthcoming and like to avoid a Syrian refugee crisis-like situation near its border. Thus, formal visas or approval from Europe for distressed Afghans is not a possibility in the near future. The irony is that the humanitarian crisis will ultimately push Afghans out of their country, but they will not receive appropriate reception in other countries. In short, the Afghan crisis will hamper the much-desired attainment of SDGs by the international community.

European countries are not forthcoming and like to avoid a Syrian refugee crisis-like situation near its border.

To conclude, while offering support in accepting and arranging funds to assist the Afghan refugees is the immediate priority, this is not the permanent solution. The political situation in Afghanistan must stabilise, paving the way for the start of an economic life in Afghanistan. A lot depends on how the Taliban engages with the common Afghans and presents itself to the international community. The Taliban cannot sustain the Afghan economy without international support, and without some economic movement, Afghans will keep looking for opportunities to move out of the country. This is a grim situation and a challenge before the international community. To reiterate, without addressing the crisis in Afghanistan, the aim to attain 17 SDGs by 2030 may remain a pipedream.

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