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The Global Refugee & Asylum Crisis- A South Asian View

Newspaper: Avenue Mail

Date: 29th August 2021

South Asia is no stranger to the global refugee crisis that the world is engulfed even more today than ever before. In 1947, when the British partitioned India and created Pakistan (East & West), the human tragedy that unfolded left a trail of devastation on both sides of the border. Mass migration led to riots and killings and other horrors of partition in which refugees from both countries had to start their life from scratch. In 1971, East Pakistan revolted against its parent West Pakistan and refugees started to arrive in India in droves. With no help from the international community, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared and won a war against West Pakistan, thereby creating the new country of Bangladesh (East Pakistan). Since 1983, over 3 lakh Sri Lankan refugees have made Tamil Nadu their home resultant of the LTTE crisis and the assault on native Tamilians back home. In 2017, the Myanmar Junta and Army ordered a deadly crackdown on the ethnic community of Rohingya Muslims which sent thousands of people running into neighboring Bangladesh.

Fast forward to August 2021, where the situation in another Asian country of Afghanistan has been racing to its current predicament since April 2021. Once American President Joe Biden announced a complete troop withdrawal from the decades-long war against the Taliban and its allies, there was no turning back. He announced the dreadful news on the 9th of July 2021 asking “How many more, how many more thousands of American daughters and sons are you willing to risk? I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan, with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome.”. Biden ordered the U.S. troops' withdrawal by the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack, a deadline that lacked intelligence or practicality.

The declaration of withdrawal from the war-torn country by the United States of America set in motion a sequence of events that no one had envisioned or expected. The NATO allies of the USA in the war against terror followed the American timetable and began preparations to withdraw before the US deadline. In the chaos of leaving the country, the nations of the world forgot an important stakeholder- The Afghans. A few well-connected and wealthy Afghans began to leave Afghanistan in July 2021 rightly anticipating the worst outcome of the US withdrawal. The elite, professionals, armed forces and the civil society that built the Afghan nation became the first citizens to leave their troubled country (An Afghan minister was seen cycling in Germany as a courier man). Since the crisis began refugees have been fleeing to bordering Pakistan & Iran as their first choice of country followed by Germany and Austria (Austria refused to take any further refugees citing integration with its population).

 

Qatar became a pivotal player in Afghanistan crisis by becoming a central point for international negotiations and hosting Afghan refugees. India stood 12th on the list of 25 nations accepting Afghans as per a United Nations agency. On 23rd of August 2021, Afghans refugees protested outside the UNHRC offices in New Delhi and demanded refugee status in India. (India has not signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.)

The Taliban which has a notorious reputation of killings, terror, and impulsive governance standards, took over the country ousting the elected government. Fearing for their lives returning to havoc, Afghans began leaving their country in droves. The horrific scenes at the Kabul Airport shocked the world in which desperate locals were clamping on the departing US C-17 Globemaster aircraft were defining visuals of this century. The deadly bomb blast by ISIS at the Kabul Airport that killed over 170 people on the 26th of August 2021, has only increased the desperation of Afghans to leave the country, even by foot if possible. Though most countries are ending their evacuations, it is expected over half a million more refugees may be leaving in the next few months as per UN. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that he “would move heaven and earth” to get the personnel, citizens, and Afghans out before the deadline. While Germany has helped over ten thousand Afghans leave the country, Sweden suspended its operations of evacuating key personnel and Afghans after it became untenable to continue operations. Turkey which was the highest recipient of refugees in 2014-16 during the peak of the Turkish Migrant Crisis, ordered its last plane out with refugees from the Kabul Airport.

 

Uganda apart from Canada has also offered to take in Afghan refugees. Corporate giant Airbnb announced that it will provide free accommodation around the world on the back of a $25 million refugee fund the company had initiated in June 2021. An organisation in the UK, Room for Refugees, working for the homeless announced that over 800 British citizens were willing to host Afghans in their spare rooms. The only silver lining being global news flooded with pictures and videos of relieved and exhausted Afghans descending the stairs of an aircraft in a receiving country.

On May 3rd, 2021, Joe Biden had announced an increase in the limit of refugees to be admitted by the United States from 15,000 in Trump’s administration to a whopping 65,000 but the US will mainly focus on Afghans who has previously worked with the United States in the war on terror. In addition to the Afghan crisis, the US is already dealing with the Mexican asylum seeker crisis that has remained a headache for the Biden administration which ended the controversial Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program. Now the US Supreme Court has asked the US government to restart the program which could send thousands of Mexican asylum seekers to dangerous bordering Mexican cities till their status is decided.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) called on countries bordering Afghanistan to keep their borders open in light of the intensifying crisis in Afghanistan. As per the UN agency “nearly 400,000 were forced from their homes since the beginning of the year, joining 2.9 million Afghans already internally displaced across the country at the end of 2020”. These numbers add to the already grim global figures of international displacement and refugee status of millions. As per UNHCR, 82.4 million people are globally displaced which includes, 48 million are internally displaced, 5.7 million are Palestinian refugees and 4.1 million are asylum seekers amongst others. The number of the year 2020 is double of 40 million people globally displaced in 2010.

The UNHRC Global Trends 2020 report states that children are the biggest victims of international displacement. As much as 42% of forcibly displaced people around the world comprise children. In 2020, 11.8 million fresh cases have added to the global number of displacements, the majority of which are from African countries of Mozambique, Mali, Niger, Chad, Ethiopia, Yemen, and Somalia. The Syrian refugee crisis had entered its 10th year in 2020. UNHRC’s report states “Syria topped the list with 6.8 million people, followed by Venezuela with 4.9 million. Afghanistan and South Sudan came next, with 2.8 and 2.2 million respectively. On the bright side, as per the report, 2,50,000 people returned to their original homes in 2020. UNHRC fears the number of globally displaced people will reach 100 million in the next few years.

Looking for solutions, the EU is debating a Temporary Protection Proposal involving the EU states on the future of the refugees arriving at its shores since the Syrian crisis. Apart from Syria, refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Albania, and Pakistan are knocking on the doors of EU member states for admission. The program outlines the benefits for refugees namely, access to employment, accommodation, medical benefits, education, and asylum procedure to stay long term, though the current proposal states that the refugees can stay for 1-3 years and must return home after the time-lapse or apply for legal processing for a further stay. The EU is also considering funding countries outside the EU and neighboring Afghanistan to induct Afghans into their country.

The United Nations and the developed countries of the world need to respond with a bigger impact to the global refugee crisis so that people can return to their countries of birth and livelihood. Since the developed nations took a calculated risk of leaving Afghanistan and left the country on a platter for the Taliban, the onus remains on them to provide for the millions of Afghan refugees by forming an international alliance to fund the world’s largest refugee programme. The world needs to buckle up and help the Afghans and their beautiful country at the time of crisis.