A New Spectre of Conflict Needs a New Hope for Refuge

Sandeep Chachra, Executive Director, ActionAid Association & Managing Editor, Agrarian South: Journal of Political Economy

August 2021 has witnessed the rise of a new spectre of conflict in Afghanistan. This is happening at a time when hunger is haunting millions of women, children and men. The World Food Programme estimates that one in three persons i.e., 14 million Afghans, including 2 million children, are going hungry now. A number that will only rise. The conflict is occurring during one of the worst droughts in the history of the country, and the impending crisis of an economy so reliant on foreign aid. A large majority of Afghans are landless sharecroppers, daily wage workers and pastoralists. The burden of the crisis they face is only expected to increase with the conflict and developments in the past months, as are the numbers of those seeking refuge and asylum. This is in addition to the roughly 3 million Afghans who have been refugees for decades now.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) have stated that there are millions in the Afghanistan in urgent need of help, including more than 600,000 people displaced by the conflict. The United Nations (UN) has warned that about half a million Afghans could flee the country by the end of the year.   

Fearing an influx, several countries have either “temporarily” closed their land borders with Afghanistan or have announced strong limits on the numbers of refugees they would allow. Pakistan, 90% of whose border with Afghanistan is fenced, recently announced that it was temporarily closing the frequented Chaman border, fearing that a million people may attempt to cross over. Uzbekistan’s border with Afghanistan remains closed, and Iran had earlier ordered its security forces to prevent people from crossing stating COVID fears. Since most of the border provinces are in control of Taliban, it is anyway difficult to cross over, given the effort of the group to present a normal situation, inside the country.  No surprise, though still highly condemnable, those who were instrumental in handing over power to Taliban, have announced that they will only take on limited numbers of refugees – numbering in the few thousands. And that too, on a priority basis, largely urban dwellers who had in some way served them.

So, while there is no doubt that Afghanistan must see a democratic and inclusive nation building on its own terms, and that it is only trajectory that can guarantee a stable future to its citizens, in the short run, the world needs to come together to support the millions in Afghanistan in dire need of humanitarian support, and offer Afghan people seeking refuge, a way out.

People seeking refuge have extremely limited choices.  From staying on in a life of persecution and impoverishment; to taking a chance for survival while undertaking risky journeys in the hope of freedom which most often translates to a life of rough discrimination in encamped settlements perhaps in near permanence. Yet the numbers of people seeking refuge continue to grow.

In its flagship report “Global Trends”, the UNHCR estimates the numbers of refugees across the world have more than doubled in the past decade. At the end what it called a “tumultuous decade of displacement”, the number of people forcibly displaced on account of persecution, conflict, violence and human rights violations or events seriously disturbing public order stood at 82.4 million, higher than ever before. In 2019 alone, nine million people sought refuge; among them Syrians, Venezuelans, Afghans, South Sudanese and stateless Rohingya topped the list among refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced. In addition, millions in these and several other countries have had to leave their towns, villages and provinces to survive various perils.

Refugee women and girls constituting roughly half of the total refugee population, face tremendous hardships while fleeing and while living in camp like situations, remaining at a high risk of violence and abuse everywhere. ActionAid Association’s forthcoming book “Women Refugee Voices from Asia and Africa” details stories of women travelling for refuge in relatively recent situations of mass displacement in Syria, Bangladesh, Sri Lankan, Pakistan, Western Sahara, Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, shedding light on the challenges they face and the aspirations they have, and spelling out what is needed to be done to provide them with refuge.

The first and immediate question facing the world now, as the women travelling to safety say, is the humanitarian one. How to best enable travel, protect and offer settlement support to those who want to flee? How to put them at the centre of all refugee support efforts? There is an immediate need is to make humanitarian transits and visas possible, and open such corridors to support those who wish to leave and in particular for women and girls.

In the case of Afghanistan, this can be done by bearing international pressure from the UN, on the regime in Afghanistan to enable people seeking refuge to do so. This plan should be financed by all those countries who joined in pledging “Enduring Freedom” to the world and to the people of Afghanistan, and in the ratio of what they contributed to finance and arm this effort. This is their moral responsibility of not having made “Enduring Freedom” happen. As Alexander Betts, an expert on refugee issues and a council member of the World Refugee Council, opines a preference matching model which would enable refugees’ destination choices to be matched with states preferences based on factors including skills and languages, could be used as a basis for decision making.

Furthermore, it is important for governments and societies to make space for refugees; to begin with in temporary camps, with a time-bound process for full integration. What is needed is access to education, healthcare, other basic public services and livelihood opportunities, so refugees can work and contribute meaningfully to host societies.  

While several governments have signed up to the UN Refugee Convention and its protocols, these are not respected even by the signatories, let alone countries like India, who have not acceded to it. What is being witnessed in this century instead, is a rising trend of xenophobia, a failure to address the root causes of forced displacements as also a collective refusal to hold perpetrators to account and to accord rights to refugees. To address such tendencies, at the global level a bold new collective thinking placing refugees at the centre of the discourse, is urgently needed.

There is a tragic memory of partition and refugees in India, one to which I, and millions of my generation can trace origins to. But it is also accompanied by a record of good refugee policies and actions that have served as moral and ethical signifiers; as beacons in the making of benevolent societies. These policies have always been politically and economically defensible. What is needed therefore is to embrace these paths with a renewed vigour and inspire others to do likewise. To begin with, we must accord acceptance to refugees on our land, and a path for citizenship for those who seek it. In doing so we will open humanitarian spaces and importantly hope for those who are fleeing life threatening situations, setting a leadership example for the world.

While the current crisis of Afghanistan may appear like a new spectre of conflict, it is also an opportunity to create a new hope for refugees.

(Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily represent those of the organisation.)

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