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U.N. Fears an Afghan ‘Brain Drain’ as Taliban Surge Sparks Mass Exodus to Europe

A top U.N. official told Foreign Policy Tuesday that without increased support, Afghanistan risks spiraling into an even worse humanitarian crisis.

Refugees from Afghanistan arrive in a boat on the shores of Lesbos near Skala Skamnias, Greece on June 2, 2015. Lesbos, the Greek vacation island in the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece, faces massive refugee flows from the Middle East countries. Women and children are seen at the beaches and the cities of Lesbos, exhausted after the trip over the Aegean Sea. Some children are even born on the flight from war. Last week alone over 2500 refugees arrived on the island, where they will be registred by Greek authorities. After registration most refugees are left on their own.  AFP PHOTO / SCANPIX DENMARK / SOEREN BIDSTRUP +++ DENMARK OUT        (Photo credit should read SOEREN BIDSTRUP/AFP/Getty Images)
Refugees from Afghanistan arrive in a boat on the shores of Lesbos near Skala Skamnias, Greece on June 2, 2015. Lesbos, the Greek vacation island in the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece, faces massive refugee flows from the Middle East countries. Women and children are seen at the beaches and the cities of Lesbos, exhausted after the trip over the Aegean Sea. Some children are even born on the flight from war. Last week alone over 2500 refugees arrived on the island, where they will be registred by Greek authorities. After registration most refugees are left on their own. AFP PHOTO / SCANPIX DENMARK / SOEREN BIDSTRUP +++ DENMARK OUT (Photo credit should read SOEREN BIDSTRUP/AFP/Getty Images)

After days of brutal fighting, Taliban fighters finally withdrew Tuesday from the northern city of Kunduz, the first metropolitan area they had successfully conquered in the last 14 years.

But a top United Nations official who returned from Afghanistan this week warned Tuesday that without increased funding, the humanitarian situation there and elsewhere in the country could spiral out of control.

John Ging, director of operations for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told Foreign Policy in a phone call from New York that a surge of Taliban violence has made humanitarian work increasingly difficult, while the country’s sluggish economy risks creating a brain drain as educated Afghans leave en masse for Europe.

Ging arrived in Afghanistan just one day after a U.S. airstrike hit a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz on Oct. 3, killing at least 22 people and wounding dozens of others. The Taliban took over Kunduz in late September, prompting the Afghan government to rush troops to the area in an effort to wrest it back. The Afghan forces were supported by American warplanes and special operations troops, and one of the U.S. aircraft that had been flying in support of the Afghan counteroffensive was responsible for the botched strike.

That deadly strike, and the Pentagon’s admission that it was a U.S. mistake, has brought new public attention to Afghanistan, which has for months been overshadowed by other conflicts like the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. But Ging cautioned that global concern about the country could disappear again just as quickly, meaning that the humanitarian crisis there that is impacting the lives of 7.4 million Afghans is at risk of being forgotten.

“There’s only a certain amount of bandwidth of attention that exists, and there’s huge competition for attention right now in terms of multiple conflicts that are raging around the world,” he said.

Afghanistan received more than $500 million of international aid in 2010. In 2015, the country has received little more than $200 million in aid.

Deteriorating conditions in camps for those who were forced from their homes and are internally displaced within Afghanistan, as well as minimal economic development, have spurred hopeless Afghans to make the dangerous trek to Europe. Roughly 17 percent of the refugees arriving in Europe are fleeing instability and economic hardship in Afghanistan. They make up the second-largest group after Syrians, and many have advanced degrees, prompting fears in Kabul that Afghanistan will be unable to rebuild from years of conflict because so many of its best-educated citizens have left the country.

“The government is very concerned that the profile of most of these people is that they’re the educated, which means it’s a brain drain for Afghanistan and will undermine their economic potential,” Ging said.

Because of that, the central government in Kabul now has to balance two major challenges: stabilizing the country’s security situation and ensuring that more of its citizens have ways of making a living or getting an education.

Ging said that despite earlier optimism from the International Monetary Fund that Afghanistan’s economy would grow by 16 percent this year, ongoing violence and a lack of international support mean the actual numbers are likely to be exponentially lower. “It’s more like 1.6 percent in growth,” he told FP.

Much of Afghanistan’s economic planning, both by the Afghan government and international donors, has focused on making better use of the country’s rich deposits of minerals and other natural resources. Those types of projects can only be completed after years of steady investment and sustained security. Instead, Ging said, priorities should be redirected to basic agricultural projects at the community level.

But next door, in Pakistan, where Ging also visited last week, the U.N. official said he found “one of the few positive stories” in the humanitarian sector. Since 2008, more than 5 million people have been forced from their homes, with many of them fleeing the Taliban. This year, more than 600,000 have returned to Peshawar, where they have begun to rebuild their homes. The Pakistani government has supported them with more than $286 million in assistance, which Ging said has generated “a sense of growing confidence among the displaced people because they’re finding from their return that it is truly now safe for them [to go home].”

Such confidence does not yet exist in Afghanistan. And Ging told FP that while U.N. donor states are “stretched thin” as they try to provide humanitarian funding to various crises around the globe, Afghan needs have remained relatively consistent and funding has only decreased.

“There has to be also a realization that the Afghan people shouldn’t pay the price for conflict elsewhere,” he said.

Photo credit: SOEREN BIDSTRUP/AFP/Getty Images

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