Afghanistan: The other refugee crisis

Afghans make up the second largest refugee population in Europe – so why aren’t we talking about it?

Afghan people play with a balloon as they wait to board a bus that will take them to the center for asylum seekers, after crossing the Serbian-Hungarian border [AP]
Until last year, Afghans were the largest global refugee population, writes Malikyar [AP]

In 1919, a British agent in Kabul complained in a letter to the Raj that the Afghan monarch “has always shown much kindness to the Germans and Austrians and has frequently entertained them and visited them”.

He was referring to over 120 German and Austrian prisoners of war who had fled camps in Russia and taken refuge in Afghanistan during World War I. Afghanistan took them in regardless of the fact that, at the time, its foreign relations were under British control.

The same largesse was bestowed upon many Jewish families who escaped the Soviet Union during World War II and the ensuing Stalin-era purges.

In turn, Germany, Austria and other Western countries have opened their arms to Afghan refugees in the past four decades of perpetual violence in Afghanistan.

Afghan refugees seek asylum in Belgium

Second largest group

Until last year, Afghans were the largest global refugee population at 2.6 million people – almost 10 percent of the country’s entire population. Today, estimated at 12 percent, they are ranked as the second largest group (after Syrians) to have reached European shores and borders.

According to the United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR, more than 40,000 Afghans have sought asylum in Europe from January until August this year.

Although tragedies that have befallen Afghan refugees for decades have not made the headlines in Western media, many have died dreadful deaths or have endured untold hardships. Many families are still waiting to hear news of loved ones that have simply vanished en route to a better life.

Also read: Could Syria be Putin’s Afghanistan?

Last week alone, Austrian police saved 24 teenage Afghans who had been packed into the back of a small wagon with the doors welded shut. Some 71 others were found dead, sealed in a truck a week earlier.

Since Germany and some other European countries announced that they would accept refugees, Afghanistan’s passport department has been inundated with applicants.


While the dire security situation prompts many Afghans to risk everything, others flee because of the country’s economic stagnation and staggering unemployment rates.

Scores of families sell their belongings or borrow money to pay human smugglers to be transported into Europe. Those who can’t afford to pay for an entire family buy passage for only their youngsters, usually skilled sons, in the hope that they might obtain a brighter future in a safe and prosperous country.

Mysterious death

Recently, the body of a young man was returned to his family in Logar province. He had finished his studies last year at Kabul University’s medical school. Failure to secure employment had forced the young physician to gamble his life – his parents were told that he died a “mysterious” death somewhere between Iran and Turkey.

But ghastly experiences have not curbed the rate of migration. Since Germany and some other European countries announced that they would accept refugees, Afghanistan’s passport department has been inundated with applicants.

According to the passport agency’s employees, they are now issuing an average of 2,000 passports a day, a threefold increase from six months ago. Unofficial reports from one border crossing in Nimruz province claim that over 8,000 Afghans cross into Iran on a daily basis. The total number may be much higher, given Afghanistan’s porous borders and multiple crossing points.

Also read: Afghanistan: It’s the economy, stupid

Germany’s announcement of accepting more refugees also instantly decreased the price of the journey from $10,000 up until last week to $4,000.

An Afghan refugee holding his child rests on a railway track after crossing the Serbia-Hungary border [AP]
An Afghan refugee holding his child rests on a railway track after crossing the Serbia-Hungary border [AP]

While it is good news that Europe is revisiting its immigration policy from a humanitarian perspective, the mass exodus spells trouble for Afghanistan’s future. This would mark the third major mass migration in less than four decades. The resulting brain drain and flight of educated and skilled human capital will be disastrous for a country in transition.

First exodus

The first wave occurred in the 1980s, as the educated class of the ancient regime fled the Soviet invasion and Afghanistan’s communist government.

The bloody mujahideen infighting and subsequent Taliban takeover in the 1990s, prompted a second upsurge of migration, draining the country of the remaining educated elite and an emerging urban middle class.

With the US-led NATO invasion, the unseating of the Taliban, and the establishment of a democratic system at the end of 2001, many Afghans returned to their homeland, bringing back their education acquired in exile, and their global experience.


The international involvement has produced a new generation of educated, skilled and socially aware Afghans. It has also created aspirations for a better life, desire for economic prosperity, and expectations for the basic necessities of life.

A generation that was allowed to sample the sweet taste of possibilities, freedom, rights and relative stability, is now dodging explosions and suicide attacks.

In the first half of 2015, the United Nations reported that almost 5,000 civilian casualties were due to Taliban attacks and improvised explosives. 

Psychological repercussions

Intensified violence also affects access to education, healthcare, justice, and economic activity, not to mention profound psychological repercussions.  

Unemployment has reached record heights. Domestic and foreign investments have halted, and the flight of capital is becoming a critical issue. Projects attached to international aid – one of the largest sources of employment in the past decade – have, for the most part, shut down or been placed in hibernation.

The world is also pushing Afghanistan to reach a peace deal with its foes. The recent Taliban splits, increased ISIL presence, and other regional terrorist group activities, along with Pakistan’s continued disingenuity have all further complicated the peace process.

The nascent Afghan National Security Forces have performed remarkably well, but without international military assistance, Afghanistan’s war against terrorism and peace efforts will be futile.

Germany and other Western states may show generosity in accepting refugees, but unless the world revamps the Afghan economy and seriously engages in the restoration of security, the brain drain will gravely reverse the trillion-dollar global effort in rehabilitating and stabilising Afghanistan. 

Helena Malikyar is an Afghan political analyst and historian.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.