Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Afghan Crisis Demands a Coordinated Response on Refugees

This is a chance to display democratic values—and establish a better order.

By , a former British secretary of state for international development.
Afghan men line up for food ration distribution.
Afghan men line up for food ration distribution.
Afghan men line up for U.N. World Food Program food ration distribution in Pul-e-Alam, Afghanistan, on Jan. 17. Scott Peterson/Getty Images

The departure of the U.S.-led NATO coalition last August has left hundreds of thousands of Afghans, from female judges to human rights defenders, in danger of the Taliban. Their situation is compounded by a collapsing economy, the threat of starvation, and the reemergence of terrorist groups under a fragile Taliban administration. They seek to flee but remain trapped because NATO countries are not offering to receive them. In short, they have been betrayed.

But there is still an opportunity for the powers that intervened in Afghanistan to honor their humanitarian commitments; avoid the apathy, hostility, and division that have too often characterized refugee responses; and avert a horrifying tragedy. The United States and its allies have provided thoughtful, sustained, and coordinated responses before, such as to the tragedy of the Vietnamese boat people. The world can do the same for Afghanistan.

There is still significant public goodwill toward Afghans in the West. More than 2 million foreign nationals passed through the country during the United States’ 20 years of intervention and developed intense personal relationships. Westerners are now far more knowledgeable about Afghanistan and its challenges than they are about many comparable states. An extraordinary variety of countries proved willing to host Afghans temporarily or permanently after the fall of Kabul and were resilient and flexible in processing claims. And remarkable evacuation efforts have been driven by small citizen donations, philanthropists, veterans, and nongovernmental organizations, such as the Open Society Foundations, which dedicated hundreds of staff to unravel the Byzantine visa and flight manifest requirements as well as encouraged small countries to accept refugees.

The departure of the U.S.-led NATO coalition last August has left hundreds of thousands of Afghans, from female judges to human rights defenders, in danger of the Taliban. Their situation is compounded by a collapsing economy, the threat of starvation, and the reemergence of terrorist groups under a fragile Taliban administration. They seek to flee but remain trapped because NATO countries are not offering to receive them. In short, they have been betrayed.

But there is still an opportunity for the powers that intervened in Afghanistan to honor their humanitarian commitments; avoid the apathy, hostility, and division that have too often characterized refugee responses; and avert a horrifying tragedy. The United States and its allies have provided thoughtful, sustained, and coordinated responses before, such as to the tragedy of the Vietnamese boat people. The world can do the same for Afghanistan.

There is still significant public goodwill toward Afghans in the West. More than 2 million foreign nationals passed through the country during the United States’ 20 years of intervention and developed intense personal relationships. Westerners are now far more knowledgeable about Afghanistan and its challenges than they are about many comparable states. An extraordinary variety of countries proved willing to host Afghans temporarily or permanently after the fall of Kabul and were resilient and flexible in processing claims. And remarkable evacuation efforts have been driven by small citizen donations, philanthropists, veterans, and nongovernmental organizations, such as the Open Society Foundations, which dedicated hundreds of staff to unravel the Byzantine visa and flight manifest requirements as well as encouraged small countries to accept refugees.

General domestic political context has become less hostile to asylum-seekers. U.S. President Joe Biden’s election ushered in a more moderate U.S. position on refugees and asylum-seekers, including lifting the annual refugee resettlement ceiling from 17,000 people to 125,000 people. The new German coalition has committed to resettling 25,000 Afghans. The United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia have announced they are also willing to take more Afghans in addition to those already evacuated from their homeland.

Reforming the international resettlement coalition around the Afghan crisis, therefore, presents a rare opportunity to deliver rapid, concrete, and ethical results. For many European Union states, it is a chance to demonstrate European values after the 2015 refugee crisis. For Canada, Norway, and Sweden, it would be the culmination of their extraordinary historical commitment to the issue, enshrining a target they have already exceeded. For Germany, it is a chance to make a significant foreign-policy impact during its G-7 presidency. Australia and Britain can demonstrate the benefits of their preferred policies of orderly resettlement.

Above all, it is an opportunity for Biden to fulfill his electoral commitment to reverse the prior administration’s refugee policies, build on the narrative of the evacuation’s successful aspects, demonstrate moral responsibility and compassion, and address the concerns for Afghans expressed across the political spectrum from refugee advocates to veteran organizations. It would allow Biden to do so in a way that focuses on an orderly process rather than irregular migration. And by creating systems for international burden-sharing, it would show U.S. leadership while demonstrating to the American public that other countries are taking their fair share of refugees.

The United States—or Germany, as the current G-7 chair—should convene an immediate global summit on this issue. Drawing on the countries that are already actively resettling refugees, it should encourage future commitments on resettlement and set out a longer-term aspiration of taking annual refugee numbers equivalent to 0.05 percent of domestic populations—below the amount taken by Canada, slightly above the amount proposed by Biden, and the equivalent of a town of 10,000 people hosting a single refugee family of five.

This target would amount to around 40,000 refugees a year for a state like Germany and approximately 166,000 refugees for a state like the United States. For comparison purposes, the United States admitted 280,500 Vietnamese refugees between 1978 and 1982, at a time when the United States’ population was two-thirds of its current size. At the heart of the idea of a proportional figure is a notion of reasonable and transparent burden-sharing among states. Prior experience, such as the failure to achieve a consensus inside the EU on refugees in 2015, suggests that will be a tough goal but an achievable one. It demands leadership, voluntary commitments, and diplomacy rather than imposition.

Three categories of Afghans should be prioritized. The first is Afghans who managed to leave during the evacuation but are currently stranded in smaller Balkan, African, and Middle Eastern states that have neither the will nor capacity to retain them for longer. The second is Afghans still trapped in Afghanistan who are already eligible for resettlement under existing international programs, such as the U.S. special immigrant visa and Refugee Admission Program Priority-2 schemes. Finally, Afghans who are not eligible for existing schemes but face extreme threats of persecution should make up the third category. This group includes women’s rights activists, journalists, artists, human rights defenders, LGBTQ campaigners, lawyers, and political opponents of the Taliban. The government itself is not the only danger: Non-Taliban extremists and terrorists have also targeted minority groups.

The coalition should be prepared to process these applicants in Afghanistan itself rather than requiring them to make a dangerous and, in some cases, impossible journeys to a third country. The Taliban government, at least at a central level, is currently willing to allow persecuted groups and political opponents to leave—but that window of opportunity may be closing as the Taliban fragments and positions harden. The coalition should be willing to rely strongly on nongovernmental and other organizations to assist in screening and selection processes. It should draw heavily on the model of the Canadian private sponsorship scheme to build capacity and deepen support and legitimacy for resettlement with the host nation’s wider population.

All of this must, of course, be matched with a commitment to the millions of Afghans who will never be able to leave and whose very suffering and poverty will contribute to extremism, regional instability, and further migration. The international community must provide far more generous and rapid development and humanitarian funding to Afghanistan as well as lift the myriad bureaucratic, legal, and political barriers that are currently impeding the flow of aid, leaving 9 million Afghans facing starvation.

The Afghan response should be the beginning of a new and much broader international resettlement coalition. Coalition participants should prioritize refugee resettlement issues in their international development programs for the next five years, support the development of sound asylum-seeking systems around the world, and set a target to determine most asylum applications within eight weeks. The aim should be a more robust and predictable system of resettlement processing that can be applied to other crises in the future.

The world’s moral obligation to Afghans begins as fellow humans watching an unfolding tragedy but draws on much deeper and more personal relationships: nation to nation and individual to individual. This is a tragedy in which the United States and its allies are deeply involved—and for which they must bear some responsibility.

The states leading the resettlement response are all democracies, proud of their liberal values. Their historical record of leadership on asylum-seekers begins with their response to the Nazi genocide and was demonstrated at its most developed form in the joint programs designed for the Vietnamese boat people. This shared tradition of such democracies, acting in concert, is now being questioned and challenged by authoritarians on multiple continents and by populism and isolation at home.

A humane and practical international response to the Afghan refugee crisis would allow the democratic world to revive the values that formed the multilateral system in the wake of World War II. It is an opportunity to draw on the best of the West’s shared political traditions and to demonstrate that it still can deliver on its moral obligations. It is a chance to show that international leadership and cooperation can produce practical and ethical results. It is an opportunity not only to live up to the traditions of its predecessors but also to do what it failed to do: Design a system realistic and resilient enough to be sustained into the future. And more immediately—and most importantly—it is a chance to save and transform, now and in the future, the lives of hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable people on Earth.

Rory Stewart is a former British secretary of state for international development. He currently is a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson School for Global Affairs and the author of The Places in Between. His full report on the potential for a new global refugee coalition has just been published by the Atlantic Council. Twitter: @RoryStewartUK

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