Analysis

Will Afghan Refugees Stranded in Southeast Asia Be Resettled?

After the fall of Kabul, some countries are opening their doors. Afghans who have been stuck in Malaysia and Indonesia for years are hoping that they will not be forgotten.

By , a freelance researcher and writer covering refugees, migration and conflict, with a focus on Southeast Asia.
indonesia afghanistan refugees
A refugee from Afghanistan looks out over her small garden at an Indonesian government facility set up for the refugees on Aug. 28 in Jakarta, Indonesia. Ed Wray/Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

Refugees tend to live in a perpetual state of uncertainty when it comes to the future. Abdullah Sarwari, an Afghan refugee who arrived in Canada in 2019, remembers what it felt like for him, his mother, and his siblings to wait five years in Indonesia hoping to be resettled.

“Every time something bad happened in Afghanistan, though we were sad … it also meant there would be some change, maybe, in how many [Afghans] countries were accepting,” he explained. He couldn’t read the news without analyzing what it might mean for his family and their prospects for starting over.

As the Taliban took control of Kabul in mid-August, Afghans who had already fled to neighboring countries or farther afield feared for family still at home. At the same time, those who aspired to a life elsewhere also wondered whether their own chances of resettlement would improve.

Refugees tend to live in a perpetual state of uncertainty when it comes to the future. Abdullah Sarwari, an Afghan refugee who arrived in Canada in 2019, remembers what it felt like for him, his mother, and his siblings to wait five years in Indonesia hoping to be resettled.

“Every time something bad happened in Afghanistan, though we were sad … it also meant there would be some change, maybe, in how many [Afghans] countries were accepting,” he explained. He couldn’t read the news without analyzing what it might mean for his family and their prospects for starting over.

As the Taliban took control of Kabul in mid-August, Afghans who had already fled to neighboring countries or farther afield feared for family still at home. At the same time, those who aspired to a life elsewhere also wondered whether their own chances of resettlement would improve.

Mohammad—who asked that only his first name be used for security reasons—is a 28-year-old former journalist who fled Afghanistan five years ago after he was threatened by the Taliban. He was able to get a student visa to Malaysia. After arriving, Mohammad registered with the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR. But it’s not easy in Kuala Lumpur either. With no right to work, he scrounged for jobs at car washes, restaurants, and shopping malls, at constant risk of exploitation.

When Mohammad left Afghanistan, he thought he might eventually return. After Kabul fell, he was so distressed that he couldn’t talk about what was happening. He was worried about his brother especially. His problem is now twofold: “I really cannot go back to Afghanistan, and how should I bring out my family from there?”


Even before the Taliban resumed power, there were 2.8 million Afghan refugees and asylum-seekers registered with UNHCR. Almost 90 percent are in Iran and Pakistan; the rest are scattered across Central Asia, Turkey, Europe, India, and Southeast Asia.

Afghans have fled in waves over the past four decades of conflict. Although more than 5 million voluntarily returned after 2002, others have continued to leave and don’t want to go back. Among those reluctant to return are ethnic Hazaras, like Sharif (who asked to use a pseudonym), a minority who have long been persecuted for their Shiite faith. Sharif sought asylum in Thailand in 2016 and wants to be resettled. For him, what has happened in Afghanistan confirms what he’d thought all along: “This place was not for me.”

With airlifts from the chaos of Kabul’s airport ending last month, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi called for countries to increase resettlement while reiterating that it is an option for very few. The agency resettles fewer than 1 percent of refugees worldwide each year. And resettlement is not a quick fix, taking months and years.

There are now more spaces available for Afghans, enough to give many hope but too few to avoid inevitable disappointment.

Countries that have promised to resettle Afghans include Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, among others. The European Union’s efforts are still being negotiated among members of the bloc, with a high-level resettlement forum scheduled for Oct. 7. These announcements buoyed the spirits of many Afghans who fled years ago, but those hopes then curdled into confusion as rumors swirled online and details remain unclear.

Refugee policy experts point out that the pledges made so far are quite modest. Commitments have been made by Britain (5,000 Afghans in the first year and up to 20,000 after that), Canada (which recently doubled the number it will resettle from 20,000 to 40,000 over coming years), and Australia (3,000 in its annual program). These are not necessarily additional spaces. Some countries, like Australia, have allocated slots within existing resettlement quotas. “This isn’t like what we saw in 2015, 2016 for Syrians,” said Susan Fratzke of the Migration Policy Institute.

Since August, Afghans with ties to the United States because they worked for the military or for U.S.-funded programs or U.S.-based organizations have been eligible for resettlement through a pathway called Priority 2 processing. Although the State Department has not announced precisely how many Afghans will be resettled, its report to Congress on refugee admissions for the 2022 fiscal year doubled the total annual target to 125,000. Over the past 20 years, though, most Afghans have arrived in the United States through other means, such as 76,000 on Special Immigrant Visas, more than three times the number who have entered as refugees.

The pledges are more significant when compared with how many Afghans UNHCR has resettled from 2003 until mid-2021: 46,000 globally. UNHCR’s projections, released before August, had anticipated that only 6.5 percent of refugees resettled worldwide in 2022 would be Afghans—an estimate that is likely now too low. But these statistics show just how few Afghans were being resettled, as UNCHR juggled multiple simultaneous displacement crises and a shortage of resettlement places.

There are now more spaces available for Afghans, enough to give many hope but too few to avoid inevitable disappointment and despair.

There is also the question of who will be prioritized for resettlement. Afghan refugees themselves are torn. Mohammad knows there are many people leaving Afghanistan right now who are at risk. But part of him thinks that “there’s no difference between me and a person that was recently displaced.”

Mozhgan Moarefizadeh runs a center that assists refugees in Indonesia with legal and other advice—she’s also a refugee herself, from Iran. Moarefizadeh has been inundated with queries from Afghans in recent weeks. A hundred emails and messages via social media platforms arrive every day asking whether there are new resettlement programs and who will qualify.

Moarefizadeh tries to help by fact-checking rumors and circulating accurate information in Farsi, which many Afghans understand due to similarities with Dari, a language used in Afghanistan. But she’s uncomfortable with refugees who had already left Afghanistan and claimed asylum elsewhere accessing new assistance provided for the current “emergency situation … and trying to find resettlement that way.” These refugees are, Moarefizadeh thinks, comparatively safe somewhere like Indonesia.

Government statements suggest that individuals who are in immediate danger from the Taliban will be helped first—for example, Afghans who were “partners in democracy,” according to the EU. Even if these people flee to neighboring countries, there are still significant operational and bureaucratic hurdles to clear with the governments of Pakistan and Iran before resettlement will occur, notes Camille Le Coz of the Migration Policy Institute.

Alessandro Monsutti, a professor at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva and an expert on Afghan migration, cautions that resettlement, though important, may exacerbate inequalities within Afghanistan’s society. He feels that the criteria applied by governments, as with the shambolic evacuations, mean that urban, English-speaking Afghans who had certain jobs are being privileged because of their “proximity to the West.”

In principle, UNHCR refers individuals and families for resettlement based on vulnerability. In practice, governments agree to resettle refugees for many reasons, from helping those most in need to showing solidarity with poorer countries that host the vast majority of the world’s refugees. Sometimes the rationale is articulated with “surprising vagueness,” as Alexander Betts, a professor of forced migration and international affairs at the University of Oxford, has written. Fratzke, the migration expert, points out that resettlement is always political, as domestic politics often play a significant role. The Afghan crisis is no different.


Because Afghans have a history of fleeing abroad, they know how asylum systems and resettlement work, Monsutti explains. Those in Southeast Asia, most of whom are Hazara, have been on an emotional roller coaster between trying to figure out what the new resettlement pledges mean and worrying for their families still in Afghanistan.

“What makes us crazy … is that we cannot help them,” said Dunya Sajadi, an Afghan refugee who lives in Makassar, Indonesia, with her husband in a shelter run by the International Organization for Migration.

Southeast Asia hosts only a tiny fraction of all Afghan refugees, but since Australia tightened its borders a decade ago, they have been stuck. Resettlement has become their main goal. The countries where Afghans have sought asylum—Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand primarily—have not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention. While refugees can register with UNHCR, they have no legal status. They have generally been spared from deportation, said Diana Essex-Lettieri of Asylum Access. “But that doesn’t necessarily stop you from being detained,” she added.

Sharif, who sought asylum in Thailand, has many Afghan friends in immigration detention, as the law doesn’t distinguish between refugees and migrants living illegally in the country. “I have simply no rights here, no rights,” he said.

Without basic rights, refugees don’t have much of a life.

The situation is similar in Malaysia, where it is illegal for refugees to work and to send their children to school. Indonesia, for the most part, no longer detains refugees, but the government is unwilling to allow integration and won’t let them work. Without basic rights, refugees don’t have much of a life.

In 2014, Sikandar Ali came to Indonesia alone, expecting to be resettled in two to three years. Instead, it has been seven years. He’s now in his early 30s. A couple years ago, UNHCR staff came to the refugee learning center outside Jakarta where Ali volunteers and told him and the other students and staff that they might never be resettled and should prepare to live in Indonesia for the next 20 to 25 years.

The situation in Afghanistan has made him feel depressed even though he never considered going back. Other Afghans feel the same way. They protested in front of UNHCR’s office in Jakarta in August to demand that their requests for resettlement be expedited.

Ali is one of the lucky few who will be resettled—but through private sponsorship to Canada rather than through UNHCR. He’s friends with Sarwari, the refugee who was resettled in Canada a couple years ago. After arriving, he heard about Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees program, which has been running for more than 40 years and allows organizations and groups of five citizens to resettle refugees on their own initiative. Sarwari managed to find sponsors and raise the funds that will allow him to file the paperwork and eventually give Ali a new home. For many Afghans, this has been an easier route to Canada. Since 2015, more than 90 percent of the 9,500 Afghans who were resettled before August entered this way.

Private sponsorship of Afghans—and not just in Canada—seems likely to expand in response to the Taliban resuming power in Kabul. There are now more Afghan refugees in need and enthusiastic potential sponsors who want to get involved. In Canada, who will get sponsored may depend on whether the government loosens criteria as it previously did for Syrians, said Janet Dench, the head of the Canadian Council for Refugees. Afghans currently fleeing may not have the right documentation to prove their status as refugees, she said.

The United States is also introducing private sponsorship as part of the Biden administration’s broader effort to rebuild the country’s resettlement system, which shrank and weakened under Donald Trump’s presidency. The recent report to Congress on refugee admissions commits to setting up a pilot program next year, which is likely to let individual citizens, churches, mosques, and community groups support refugees after they arrive rather than relying on a handful of strained resettlement agencies. Fratzke feels that in addition to the Afghan diaspora, Americans with ties to Afghanistan will want to help. Exactly how the system will function is still being worked out.

In the meantime, Afghan refugees will continue to worry about family back home while struggling themselves. As welcome as pledges of assistance are, many wonder as Mohammad does: Who is it for?

What is clear is that the Taliban takeover will put more pressure on an overburdened resettlement system. Even if governments fully honor their pledges to help Afghan refugees going forward, the number of resettlement spots is simply not enough.

Bryony Lau is a freelance researcher and writer covering refugees, migration and conflict, with a focus on Southeast Asia.
 Twitter: @btxlau

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