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Images of thousands of Afghans desperately trying to flee their country following a hasty U.S. withdrawal have provoked an international outcry.

As of Aug. 22, 2021, some 6,000 U.S. troops were working to evacuate U.S. military, American citizens and Afghans who are approved for Special Immigrant Visas. SIVs are a special program to protect Afghans who risked their lives working for U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Germany, France, Italy and the U.K. are conducting smaller evacuation efforts for their nationals and some Afghans.

The pace of these poorly planned evacuations has been slow. They are taking place amid chaos in Kabul, where crowds are being confronted by violence from members of the now-ruling Taliban and U.S. forces and facing checkpoints that are near-impossible to pass.


Shaharzad Akbar, who leads the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, called the situation "failure upon failure."

As a scholar specializing in forcible displacement and refugees, I see this harrowing scene unfolding within a broader context of Afghanistan's long-standing displacement crisis. This includes an unequal sharing of refugees between the developed world and economically disadvantaged countries.

Chart: The Conversation, CC-BY-ND Source: UNHCR

A muted US role

The U.S. Refugee Act of 1980 standardized the procedures for admitting refugees – people who have fled war, violence, conflict or persecution – and put in place a rigorous vetting process. But over the past 40 years, U.S. acceptance rates for refugees worldwide have fallen significantly – from 200,000 admitted in 1980 to less than 50,000 in 2019.

Over the past 20 years, the U.S. admitted more than 20,000 Afghan refugees – an average of roughly 1,000 per year. But during the 2020-2021 fiscal year, just 11,800 refugees from around the world settled in the U.S. – among them were only 495 Afghan Special Immigrant Visa recipients. That number seems tiny compared to the approximately 20,000 Afghans who are currently in the pipeline waiting for a SIV and the additional 70,000 Afghans — including applicants and their immediate family members — who are eligible to apply.

Europe hosts few Afghan refugees

For decades, Afghans have also migrated or fled to Europe. Between 2015-2016, 300,000 of them arrived on the continent. They were the second-largest group of refugees and asylum-seekers after Syrians. Asylum seekers are people seeking refugee status, but whose claim has yet to be evaluated.

The Afghan population across the European continent remains small and unevenly distributed. Up until the Taliban takeover of Kabul in August 2021, many Afghans were facing deportations. Germany is the largest European host, followed by Austria, France and Sweden.

For the first three months of 2021 about 7,000 Afghans were granted permanent or temporary legal status in the European Union. They are distributed between Greece, France, Germany and Italy, with smaller Afghan contingents in other EU states.

Australia – based on its 2016 census – has approximately 47,000 Afghans who are permanent residents, some of whom began arriving as early as 1979. Approximately another 4,200 Afghans have received temporary protected status.

Displaced within Afghanistan

This still leaves an enormous number of Afghans who are displaced without a permanent home. More than half a million have already been displaced by the violence so far in 2021 according to the U.N. refugee agency. Some 80% of nearly a quarter of a million Afghans forced to flee since the end of May are women and children.

As of 2021 and prior to the current crisis, at least 3.5 million Afghans remained uprooted within Afghanistan because of violence, political unrest, poverty, climate crisis and lack of economic opportunity.

Afghan refugees enter into Pakistan through a border crossing point in Chaman while a Pakistani army soldier stands guard.AP Photo/uncredited photographer

Afghan refugees in Pakistan

The vast majority of Afghan refugees do not settle in the West.

Pakistan, which shares a 1,640-mile land border with Afghanistan, has long absorbed the largest number of Afghan refugees even though it is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol. Within two years of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, following the conflict ignited by the rise of the Mujahideen, 1.5 million Afghans had become refugees. By 1986, nearly five million Afghans had fled to Pakistan and Iran.

Since March 2002, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, had repatriated nearly 3.2 million Afghans, but in April 2021, the United Nations reported that more than 1.4 million Afghan refugees remained in Pakistan due to ongoing violence, unemployment and political turbulence in Afghanistan.

Iran also remains a significant host for Afghans, with nearly 800,000 registered refugees and at least two million more who are unregistered. Smaller numbers of Afghan refugees and asylum-seekers are in India (15,689), Indonesia (7,692) and Malaysia (2,478).

Turkey – the world's largest refugee host, with over 3.8 million registered Syrian refugees – has 980 registered Afghan refugees and 116,000 Afghan asylum-seekers.

Despite the presence of the Taliban, a group of protesters march with Afghan flags during the country's Independence Day rally in Kabul, Afghanistan on Aug. 19, 2021Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

As it stands today

The latest figures from the AP show that more than 47,000 Afghan civilians and at least 66,000 Afghan military and police forces have died in the 20-year-old Afghanistan war

The security situation in the country had been deteriorating in recent years. According to Brown University's Cost of War Project, an increasing numbers of Afghans have been killed as a result of crossfire, improvised explosive devices, assassinations by militant groups including the Taliban, night raids by U.S. and NATO forces and U.S.-led airstrikes.

Even prior to the Taliban takeover of Kabul, civilian casualties had risen by 29% in the first quarter of 2021 compared with the same period in 2020. A U.N. report from July 26, 2021 found a 37% increase in the number of women killed and injured, and a 23% increase in child casualties compared with the first quarter of 2020.

With the Taliban takeover of Kabul, there is a growing concern for the safety of Afghanistan's women and girls, ethnic minorities, journalists, government workers, educators and human rights activists. Many Afghans desperate to leave remain outside Kabul and far from any airport.

U.S. evacuations will likely end once all Americans are out of Afghanistan. A few other western countries have committed to taking in small numbers of refugees, including Canada (20,000) and the U.K. (20,000 over 5 years).

Still, adoption of hard-line policies and anti-refugee sentiments across much of Europe means that relatively few Afghans will find sanctuary on the continent. Austria and Switzerland have already refused to take in large numbers of Afghans. Turkey, already straining with refugees, said it does not want to become "Europe's refugee warehouse."

Other countries committing to take in Afghans temporarily in small numbers include Albania, Qatar, Costa Rica, Mexico, Chile, Ecuador and Colombia. Uganda, which already hosts 1.5 million refugees, mainly from South Sudan, has also agreed to take in 2,000 Afghans temporarily.

Ultimately, most Afghans able to leave the country will do so not in an aircraft, but on foot into Pakistan and Iran. Pakistan, already strained by its own economic and political struggles, will once again likely be the largest host for the most recently displaced Afghans.

But given that border crossings in the region are difficult and dangerous, the vast majority of uprooted Afghans will remain within Afghanistan's borders. Their considerable humanitarian needs, economic and political challenges, security concerns and resistance to the Taliban will shape the next chapter of the country's history.


Tazreena Sajjad is a Senior Professorial Lecturer of Global Governance, Politics and Security at the American University School of International Service as well as a pro-bono advisor for Refugee Solidarity Network (RSN).

This article first appeared on The Conversation. You can read it here.



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A cheeky Twitter challenge between 2 authors aims to raise $500k for refugees.

The velvet-voiced 'American Gods' author could soon be doing a very special reading.

Like so many of the world's great stories, this one involves a couple of well-known authors, half a million dollars in charity, social media, and The Cheesecake Factory.

It began when author and comedian Sara Benincasa issued a somewhat silly challenge to fellow author Neil Gaiman on Twitter: If she could raise $500,000 for charity, would Gaiman commit to hosting a staged reading of The Cheesecake Factory's (surprisingly lengthy) menu?

Much to Twitter's delight, Gaiman said yes and selected the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as his charity.


OK, but why Cheesecake Factory? Why Gaiman? Why that charity?

"Neil's a magnificent human," explains Benincasa over direct message on Twitter. "Cheesecake Factory is the greatest restaurant of all time. I love to contribute to good causes, though I surely don't have a half million dollars on hand."

For years, Gaiman has been an advocate for refugees around the world, so UNHCR made for an obvious choice. The whole project combines, as Benincasa writes, "the truly goofy with the truly meaningful."

You know you want to hear this man describe this piece of cheesecake. Photos by Darryl James/Getty Images and Paul Morigi/Getty Images for The Cheesecake Factory.

$500,000 is a lot of money to raise, but Gaiman feels confident Benincasa can deliver.

"Sara Benincasa is a powerful woman and I am glad she uses her powers for good," Gaiman says over e-mail. "At least, I hope she's using her powers for Good. Because I strongly suspect I'm going to be doing a public reading of the Cheesecake Factory Menu."

As a bit of a bonus, if Benincasa is able to raise a full million dollars, Gaiman has also agreed to read Dr. Seuss' "Fox in Socks" in his wonderfully warm and velvety voice.  (Here's a video of him reading Dr. Seuss' "Green Eggs and Ham" — you're welcome.)

While this is all in good fun, it's an important reminder that the refugee crisis is very much ongoing and that refugees need our help now as much as ever.

65.3 million people worldwide have been displaced by one crisis or another, and it's on the rest of us to pitch in and help — for the sake of humanity.

This 2014 photo shows a Syrian mother and son in a Turkish refugee camp. Photo by Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images.

Benincasa says the project is "a selfish way to marry [her] three favorite things (awesome art, a wonderful cause, and the world's most perfect food)," as well as a bit of a thank you to Gaiman and others who work hard to support refugees — even when there's no cheesecake involved.

Learn more details about the project and donate at the campaign's Crowdrise page.

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The UN wants to help refugees in an incredible call to action.

As the UN meets to develop a global plan for refugees, there's something we can all do.

On Sept. 19, 2016, the United Nations General Assembly gathered to discuss one of the most pressing issues of modern times: the world refugee crisis.

More than 65 million people around the world have been forcibly displaced, including an estimated 21.3 million refugees. Each day, conflict and persecution displace nearly 34,000 people.

It's a crisis that can no longer be ignored. The UN has called a summit of world heads of state to develop a blueprint for a better global response.


"It is a watershed moment to strengthen governance of international migration and a unique opportunity for creating a more responsible, predictable system for responding to large movements of refugees and migrants," reads a statement on the UN's website.

More than half of the world's refugees come from just three countries: Somalia, Afghanistan, and Syria.

As what can feel like unending conflict rages on in these countries, it can be easy to forget the hellish conditions their citizens must withstand. It's not their fault their countries are at war, yet they suffer the consequences of others' actions. For many, the choice is to stay home and face near-certain death or to flee and hope the rest of the world shows them compassion.

This is an issue that extends far beyond our countries' borders; this is an issue that comes with a true moral imperative on a human level.

During the summit, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced an initiative designed to unify us as people first. It's called the Together initiative.

The Together campaign urges people around the world — including and perhaps especially our politicians — to think about how they frame issues.

As part of the campaign, the UN refugee agency put out a series of videos to help humanize refugees and put a face on the crisis.

In a video posted to Facebook, actors Cate Blanchett, Keira Knightley, Juliet Stevenson, Peter Capaldi, Stanley Tucci, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kit Harington, Douglas Booth, Jesse Eisenberg, and Neil Gaiman perform the rhythmic poem "What They Took With Them."

The poem, written by Jenifer Toksvig, was inspired by stories and firsthand accounts from refugees discussing what objects they gathered before fleeing home.

It's a sobering look at the life of a refugee, of how much so many of us take for granted in this world.

What They Took With Them

Cate Blanchett performs the rhythmic poem ‘What They Took With Them’ alongside fellow actors Keira Knightley, Juliet Stevenson, Peter Capaldi, Stanley Tucci, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kit Harington, Douglas Booth, Jesse Eisenberg and Neil Gaiman. The poem was written by Jenifer Toksvig and was inspired by stories and first-hand testimonies from refugees forced to flee their homes and items they took with them. One of the sources for the poem was Brian Sokol’s photography project, ‘The Most Important Thing,’ made in collaboration with UNHCR. Many of Brian's photos, along with firsthand accounts from the refugees he photographed, are featured in the film. ​ Released exclusively on Facebook, the film urges people to sign the #WithRefugees petition to help ensure refugees have the basics to build back their lives – an education, somewhere safe to live and the opportunity to work. To see the full version of the film and to sign the petition go to www.withrefugees.org

Posted by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency on Thursday, September 8, 2016

The refugee crisis isn't going anywhere soon. That's why it's important for our language to continue evolving and for us to be especially cognizant of how we tie refugees into political speech. They're people. They deserve to be treated as such.

Can you imagine being forced to flee from your country and live in a refugee camp? Well 10% of the world has, with the average stay in a camp being around ... 12 YEARS. The tents people are made to live in at the camps do not insulate heat or provide electricity.

In comes Ikea. Recognizing that the UN Refugee Agency hasn't advanced their tents over the years, Ikea partnered with UNHCR to create smart, flat-pack housing designed in a durable, easy-to-transport-and-set-up Ikea kinda way.


It's still in its prototype stage, but it's smart design like this that could make a huge difference.