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The Coming Afghan Refugee Crisis Is Only a Preview

More desperate migrants will head West in coming years—and the West’s migration policies must change in response.

By , a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
Afghan children at an IDP camp
Children pose for photographs in front of their tents at a camp for internally displaced families in Panjwai District of Kandahar province, Afghanistan, on March 31. JAVED TANVEER/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

Two developments over the past week are harbingers of a storm that may test Western democracy to destruction. First, the imminent collapse of the Afghan state risks sending a massive new wave of migrants towards Europe. Second, the sixth report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) presents evidence that within the next few decades—not the next century—the effects of climate change may be such as to help destroy several vulnerable and heavily-populated states.

A row of state failures like that of Afghanistan would lead to increases in migrant numbers on a scale that Western democracies could not absorb without ensuring their own collapse. The case of Afghanistan illustrates some of the moral dilemmas and practical difficulties involved in the question of accepting migrants on a mass scale. The West has no choice but to consider possible answers—because the question isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

One issue is at least morally clear: The United States and its allies have a duty to take in the Afghan interpreters and other staff (together with their immediate families) who worked directly for their armed forces in Afghanistan and are at direct risk of Taliban retaliation. Not to do so would be a betrayal of American military honor. Not least among the disgraces of the French war in Algeria from 1954 to 1962 was that when the French finally withdrew, they left behind tens of thousands of Algerian soldiers, known as Harkis, who fought in the French Army, many of whom were promptly massacred by the victorious rebels, together with their families. Identifying Afghans who worked directly for the U.S. and other Western militaries is also relatively simple, since their names were recorded.

Two developments over the past week are harbingers of a storm that may test Western democracy to destruction. First, the imminent collapse of the Afghan state risks sending a massive new wave of migrants towards Europe. Second, the sixth report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) presents evidence that within the next few decades—not the next century—the effects of climate change may be such as to help destroy several vulnerable and heavily-populated states.

A row of state failures like that of Afghanistan would lead to increases in migrant numbers on a scale that Western democracies could not absorb without ensuring their own collapse. The case of Afghanistan illustrates some of the moral dilemmas and practical difficulties involved in the question of accepting migrants on a mass scale. The West has no choice but to consider possible answers—because the question isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

One issue is at least morally clear: The United States and its allies have a duty to take in the Afghan interpreters and other staff (together with their immediate families) who worked directly for their armed forces in Afghanistan and are at direct risk of Taliban retaliation. Not to do so would be a betrayal of American military honor. Not least among the disgraces of the French war in Algeria from 1954 to 1962 was that when the French finally withdrew, they left behind tens of thousands of Algerian soldiers, known as Harkis, who fought in the French Army, many of whom were promptly massacred by the victorious rebels, together with their families. Identifying Afghans who worked directly for the U.S. and other Western militaries is also relatively simple, since their names were recorded.

Beyond these cases, the issue becomes extremely murky. The Afghan governing elites may well face persecution by the Taliban; but on the other hand, it is their own monstrous corruption, incapacity for state-building and, in some cases, brutality that has made Taliban victory possible. And while one may sympathize with the unwillingness of Afghan government soldiers to die for such a state, the fact is that they have fled from or surrendered to a Taliban enemy with a small fraction of their weaponry and their money—all of it provided by the United States. America has no obligations toward them.

In the wider population, it is virtually impossible in most cases to sort out refugees and people with genuine fears of persecution from economic migrants, if only because a whole industry has grown in coaching applicants for asylum in what to say to Western officials. But even if this were not the case, the fundamental problem would remain, which is that of numbers. There are roughly 38 million people in Afghanistan (nobody can say for sure because there has been no reliable census). Many or most of them are in some degree of danger from ongoing fighting.

Members of ethnic minorities can point to past Taliban oppression. Half the population—the female half—can claim to be threatened by Taliban oppression, even if in most of the country the Taliban has simply continued traditional Afghan rural culture. The great majority of Afghans are very poor and, with the collapse of the existing state, many will face increased malnutrition if not outright famine. It is absolutely understandable that they would wish to move to the West. It is understandable also that the West may find it impossible to accommodate them.

The same will be true of the many more migrants likely to come in years ahead. Pentagon reports have warned that climate change will act as a “force multiplier” of problems in weak states: “Global climate change will aggravate problems such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership and weak political institutions.” Climate change will add to the pressure on populations that, in some cases, are already growing beyond the capacity of local agricultures to feed them and on water supplies that are already running short.

As scientific reports have warned, even fairly limited rises in temperature in South Asia will lead to a severe reduction in key crop yields, and heat waves during which sustained outside work will be fatal. In the case of Bangladesh, rising sea levels threaten to destroy that country altogether within the foreseeable future. It may also be noted that the most ferociously-defended anti-immigrant border fence in the world is that erected by India to stop Bangladeshi migrants, of whom more than 1,100 have been killed by Indian border guards.

As far as Europe is concerned, the area of greatest danger is West Africa, from where an increasing stream of migrants is already flowing toward Europe. The problems of this region as a whole are very bad. In the case of Nigeria, they become truly terrifying. Nigeria is home to some 206 million people, a figure projected to grow to more than 400 million by 2050.

Acute corruption and political dysfunction have squandered the country’s oil wealth. The Islamist rebellion of Boko Haram is raging in northern Nigeria, while ethnic separatism is growing in the south. Banditry is rife. And in central Nigeria, a combination of population growth and declining water resources is leading to bloody conflict between pastoral and agricultural ethnicities, of the sort that helped to produce the terrible civil war in the Sudanese province of Darfur. It is not difficult to see how a state as weak as Nigeria could be pushed by climate change into complete collapse, with immense flows of refugees as a result.

For the United States, the most immediate danger obviously stems from the situation to its south, in the troubled societies of Mexico and Central America. Global reports have highlighted that drought leading to food shortages has been a major contributory factor in migration to the United States from that region in recent years. The latest IPCC report warned of the acute vulnerability of the region to climate change, especially due to changing rainfall patterns.

In circumstances where less skilled workers in the United States are already facing steep declines in their socioeconomic condition, and the rise of automation and artificial intelligence threatens middle-class jobs as well, to import greatly increased numbers of unskilled workers looks much like an experiment in the generation of fascism.

The most useful thing that the developed countries of the West can do to help endangered societies elsewhere is to rapidly limit our own carbon emissions—for if we fail to do so and temperatures rise uncontrollably, then weak states around the world will assuredly fail (followed by Western states, somewhat later). Moreover, limiting our carbon emissions is, in the end, something that is fully under the control of Western voters and governments.

The United States and its Western allies should also increase aid to countries that are especially endangered in the short term, and should reconfigure this aid so as to concentrate on building resilience against climate change. Most important of all is help to improve water conservation, improve standards of water use in agriculture, and develop and distribute new strains of crops that are resistant to higher temperatures.

And since the effects of climate change are the greatest threat to the survival of Western democracies, this effort should take financial precedence over U.S. military spending. As every opinion poll and election in Europe and the United States over the past decade has emphasized, it is the reaction against migration, not the influence of Russia or China, that is a principal driving force behind the rise of chauvinist politics in the West.

However, we must also recognize the acute limitations of Western aid and advice when it comes to promoting economic and social change elsewhere in the world. If there are three things that the miserable example of Afghanistan since 2001 has illustrated, it is that general Western theories of development are often useless; we really have no idea what policies (if any) will work in any given case; and that even with copious outside aid, particular societies may lack the capacity to turn themselves into successful modern states. A succession of Afghan rulers has been trying to do this for more than a century. Every one of them has failed.

Western governments, therefore, will also have to adopt much stronger measures to prevent the entry of migrants, through increased border security and the cancellation of existing laws guaranteeing political asylum. For as long as the hope of residence in the West exists, the increasingly desperate situation in West Africa and elsewhere means that increasing numbers will come.

This approach will be denounced by many as immoral; but Western leaders and officials have sworn oaths to defend the constitutions and peoples of their countries. This is not their only ethical responsibility, but it is certainly their primary one. The survival of liberal democracy in the world as a whole also depends on its survival in the United States and Europe. If the West itself falls into civil strife dictatorship, then there will not be much point in talking about Western responsibilities to help anywhere else.

Anatol Lieven is a senior fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and the author of Pakistan: A Hard Country. His most recent book, Climate Change and the Nation State, is appearing in an updated paperback edition in September 2021.

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