Australia should plan special refugee intake as Afghanistan faces migration crisis
26 Aug 2021|

While the world follows the frantic efforts of the United States and allied nations to evacuate their citizens and others from Afghanistan following the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, the scenes we’re witnessing signal only the start of what will be a massive forced migration crisis in the country, a crisis that the international community is ill prepared for.

Afghanistan already has huge numbers of displaced people—there are about 2.9 million refugees outside of the country and almost 3.5 million internally displaced persons, 550,000 of whom have fled since the start of this year. Many of them had been fleeing the Taliban advance, seeking safety in government-held parts of the country and, finally, moving into Kabul. While there has been some planning for large-scale displacement out of the country, those arrangements likely to be quickly overwhelmed; the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, for instance, has planned for a total influx of 500,000 refugees into Iran over a six-month period.

But displacement flows are likely to be far larger than that. The Taliban’s first conquest between 1994 and 1996 didn’t trigger large-scale refugee flows, but it was tempered by three major factors. The first was that 2.6 million refugees were already outside Afghanistan, the second was that would-be refugees could still flee to territories held by the Northern Alliance (about a million people did so), and the third was that Afghanistan’s neighbours had pursued border closures so many people had no choice but to remain in the country.

After the 11 September 2001 attacks, there were major movements as civilians fled anticipated US-led air strikes. During that period, according to UNHCR data, overall refugee figures climbed to about 3.8 million, while internally displaced persons of concern to the UNHCR (a figure that doesn’t include all internally displaced people) doubled to 1.2 million.

Last Monday, more than 60 countries including Australia signed a joint statement that urged the Taliban to allow ‘the safe and orderly departure of foreign nationals and Afghans who wish to leave the country’. But getting out is soon going to be very difficult.

Right now, the main focus is on the evacuation effort from Kabul airport. The US has brought out more than 70,000 people since the airlift began, while Australia has so far rescued 2,700 Australians, Afghan nationals and other foreign citizens. But these evacuations are time limited. US President Joe Biden has said he will stick with his plan to finish the mission by the end of the month. For their part, the Taliban have indicated that 31 August is a ‘red line’ and that extending the American presence would ‘provoke a reaction’.

The US’s main tool to accommodate Afghan refugees is the special immigrant visa, or SIV. But it is designed as an ordinary resettlement program, and processing can take well over a year. This has led the US to negotiate agreements with 11 countries so far to temporarily host refugees. But the other issue with the SIV program is that it only applies to Afghans who were directly employed by the US government or on behalf of the NATO mission. While Biden has indicated the scheme will be extended to support other vulnerable Afghans who worked for US non-governmental organisations and news agencies, that doesn’t provide any access for Afghans who worked for non-US NGOs, or other vulnerable Afghans who may face persecution (and even death) under the Taliban.

Commitments by other countries to provide resettlement spots for these people are therefore critical. Canada has taken the lead here, announcing that it will ‘resettle 20,000 vulnerable Afghans threatened by the Taliban and forced to flee Afghanistan’, including through a special program focused on vulnerable groups. The UK announced a similar scheme for 20,000 Afghans over five years, 5,000 of whom will be accepted by the end of 2021. The British scheme will also prioritise women, children and religious minorities.

Australia has so far taken two actions. The first was to announce a moratorium on returns to Afghanistan for Afghans already here. Then, last Wednesday, the government committed 3,000 places in the existing annual resettlement program to refugees from Afghanistan, focusing on family resettlement and ‘persecuted minorities such as women and girls, children, the Hazara and other vulnerable groups’.

While it’s an important first step, using the existing resettlement program creates its own problems. The government reduced the refugee resettlement intake by 5,000 places this year, which has meant the program is already backlogged and overwhelmed. As of the end of July, there were 32,877 applications in the refugee status determination queue and, with about 950 being processed each month, it takes successful applicants more than a year to get through the process. This commitment also prioritises Afghan refugees at the expense of others who also need protection.

A different model is available: a special intake just for Afghan refugees. Australia used this mechanism in the past, most recently in 2015 when a special intake of 12,500 Syrian and Iraqi refugees was organised by Prime Minister Tony Abbott. That move was praised at the time by the UNHCR.

Such a commitment would see Australia standing alongside the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, and also ensure safety for more Afghans than would otherwise receive protection.

A special refugee intake would also send an important signal of support to the countries surrounding Afghanistan. In the coming weeks and months, these countries of first asylum—Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan—will need to absorb huge numbers of refugees crossing their land borders. The UNHCR has already called on these countries to keep their borders open, noting that ‘those who may be in danger have no clear way out’.

These countries will need financial assistance to do so—the current UNHCR plan for Afghanistan has received only 37% of the US$1.3 billion requested. Australia can help by continuing its humanitarian assistance program, which has amounted to $134 million since 2014. But a tangible resettlement program would be an important step to signal international solidarity with Australia’s allies and Afghanistan’s neighbours, solidarity that will be critically important to ensure the stability of the region after the Taliban’s victory.