While Western headlines center on saving Afghans who helped coalition forces, a much larger refugee catastrophe looms as the Taliban strengthen their hold in Afghanistan.
This lesser-known humanitarian crisis counts more than 550,000 Afghans who’ve already been displaced this year, often within the country but outside the gaze of media and embassies in Kabul. Many more are desperate to leave, especially now that the Taliban is keeping Afghan nationals from getting to the airport.
Global leaders should have better seen this coming, largely because internal displacement — that is, population movement within one’s own country — foreshadows transnational crisis and international migration. As the world community scrambles to save as many Afghans as it can, governments must seize this avoidable moment as a devastating lesson in prevention.
Warning signs in Afghanistan took shape in April, when President Joe BidenJoe BidenPharma lobby eyes parliamentarian Demand for US workers reaches historic high Biden to award Medal of Honor to three soldiers who fought in Iraq, Afghanistan: report MORE announced the U.S. would start withdrawing American troops May 1. Clear indicators of the impending refugee crisis emerged as soon as the withdrawal began.
Within a month, the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) was reporting a whopping 355 percent month-over-month rise in displaced people migrating within and across Afghanistan. In June, 121,628 people moved within the country — the highest monthly figure reported in nearly a decade apart from October 2016.
The July numbers climbed higher still, even though people were fleeing fewer districts.
We’ve visualized this in four charts that show civilians across the entire country were being uprooted from their homes.
Predictably, some of the upheaval has since shifted into international migration and refugee flows. By the end of July, at least 30,000 people were fleeing Afghanistan weekly and daunting backlogs were growing for exit options like Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) to the U.S.
The sudden increases in internal migration were repeated signals that could have led to more diplomatic and humanitarian action. Humanitarian aid could have ramped up, visa and asylum processing capacities could have been enhanced and at-risk civilians could have been moved to safety more quickly.
Two factors should have made these domestic movements an especially stark warning.
First, many Afghans — roughly three out of four by one estimate — have already been displaced multiple times. The country already had substantial humanitarian needs.
Second, many Afghans maintain strong ties with friends and relatives in neighboring countries like Pakistan, and in areas as far away as the U.S., Canada and Europe. New internal displacement posed a significant risk of an international crisis, with Afghans likely to seek refuge through their ties abroad. It was unlikely that this would, or could, be contained within Afghanistan.
Syria and Somalia offer valuable lessons from their similar stories. Even before Syria’s civil war began in 2011, many Syrians often traveled to Saudi Arabia or other Gulf countries for seasonal work, had connections in nearby countries like Turkey or Lebanon, or had friends and relatives farther away in Europe or North America. Somalia had waves of conflict in the 1980s, 90s and 2000s that led to widespread diaspora networks across Africa, Europe and the U.S.
Such transnational networks are pivotal in turning internal migration into international migration.
Furthermore, in both Syria and Somalia, people tended to be displaced within their own countries before they would cross borders and become refugees. During 2013, researchers found average Syrians often were internally displaced about three times before crossing international borders and becoming refugees in Turkey and even Western Europe.
Until 2015, the number of Syrian refugees remained far lower than the number of Syrian internally displaced persons. During the 1990s in war-torn Somalia, there was massive internal displacement before Kenya and Ethiopia received hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees. The same occurred in the mid-2000s when Al Shabaab emerged in Somalia.
Unfortunately, the same dynamic is unfolding in Afghanistan. Beyond the need for media organizations to report on internal displacement, there is also a need for governments and humanitarian organizations to act when internal displacement suddenly increases. Researchers already incorporate this insight into their models, but policymakers and practitioners often are slow to mobilize despite the early warning signs.
Fact is, roughly two out of three displaced people worldwide today remain within their own countries. Beyond the challenge of assisting internally displaced people themselves, data indicating sudden increases in internal displacement could inform early warning systems that help accelerate humanitarian responses.
Dr. Justin Schon is a senior research analyst with AidData, a research lab at William & Mary. He has published numerous peer-reviewed articles on conflict and migration, as well as the book “Surviving the War in Syria: Survival in a Time of Conflict” (Cambridge University Press, 2020).
Dr. Ammar A. Malik is a senior research scientist with AidData, a research lab at William & Mary. He has extensive experience supporting evidence-based migration policy research, including for the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.