The image of the dramatic airlift evacuation of some 120,000 Afghans from the Kabul Airport in August 2021 is in everyone’s memory, while what happened at the land borders of Afghanistan attracted less public attention in the West
Directly following the withdrawal of American troops, the Taliban retook Kabul in August 2021, 20 years after having been ousted from power by a US-led international intervention. It was a new dramatic development in an endless series of conflicts since the Communist coup d’état of 1978. During the past 45 years, Afghans have consistently constituted one of the biggest displaced populations in the world. The image of the dramatic airlift evacuation of some 120,000 Afghans from the Kabul Airport in August 2021 is in everyone’s memory, while what happened at the land borders of Afghanistan attracted less public attention in the West.
Last year, 1.3 million registered Afghan refugees were found living in Pakistan. People who hold a Proof of Registration (valid until June 2023) have access to education and health. Another 600,000 Afghans are undocumented, whilst 840,000 people hold an Afghan citizenship card. 300,000 Afghans are estimated to have entered Pakistan since the Taliban regained power. During winter 2022–2023, Islamabad authorities rounded up unregistered Afghans for an unprecedented and massive deportation, a practice criticised in the past by humanitarian organisations and largely found ineffective because of the porous borders between the two countries.
In Iran, the situation is equally worrying. Approximately 780,000 Afghans are recognised as refugees with an additional estimated 2.1 to 2.6 million remaining undocumented. One million new arrivals were reported in Iran since the summer of 2021; however, most were deported back to Afghanistan.
In 2021 Afghans were the largest asylum-seeking group worldwide, with thousands of people also internally displaced in Afghanistan. More than half of the population needs humanitarian aid with a vast majority of Afghan families spending over 90% of their assets just to secure food.
The current deterioration of the human rights’ situation in Afghanistan and the increased humanitarian needs of the population at large beg the question as to the effectiveness of the international embargo as well as the distinction between registered refugees and undocumented people. Afghans have responded to hardship by developing transnational networks. Relying on an unlikely voluntary return to Afghanistan, deportations (from Iran and Pakistan but also from Western countries), or resettlement whilst the country faces one of the most dire times in its history is not sustainable. Instead of boxing Afghans in existing definitions and restraining Afghanistan through isolation and sanctions, it is crucial to recognise mobility as a key form of livelihood, more important today than ever, and to rely on the resilience of people, especially those living abroad or crossing international borders.