As some countries welcome Afghanistan's refugees, others want to keep them out

Tens of thousands of people in Afghanistan were airlifted out of the country last month as the Taliban swept to power. Many more are still trying to escape. Here's a look at where the country's refugees may be heading.

Despite recent mass airlifts, the country's neighbours will bear brunt of refugee crisis

Afghan refugees are shown at a Red Cross camp in Avezzano, Italy, on Aug. 31. (Andrew Medichini/The Associated Press)

As pictures of desperation were beamed from Kabul's airport last month, showing thousands of Afghans trying to escape the Taliban and get out however they could, French President Emmanuel Macron went on national TV.

France, he said, needs to "protect itself from a wave of migrants" heading for Europe, declining to say, for now, if it will take more Afghan refugees.

In another corner of the European Union, Croatian President Zoran Milanović declared "all of them should find their place in the United States."

"It's no longer 2015," he said, referring to Europe's last refugee crisis, when 1.3 million people sought asylum there — led by a wave of those fleeing the war in Syria, but which also included many Afghans.

A smaller but steady flow of Afghan migrants has continued ever since, as fighting persisted in the country, then accelerated as the U.S. announced it was preparing to leave after 20 years of conflict. 

By last year, well over three million Afghans found their way abroad.

While Afghanistan's latest humanitarian emergency grows, the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, says "our own monitoring is not confirming any kind of large movements of population outside of Afghanistan."

It's a different story inside the country of 39 million. UNHCR estimates some 570,000 Afghans have left their homes since the start of the year, gravitating to larger cities like Kabul. Around 80 per cent of these internally displaced people are women and children, according to the UN agency.

Some of them may make it out of Afghanistan eventually, but there are few international commercial flights and land crossings are unpredictable and sometimes dangerous.

With options limited, few refugees reach Western borders, said UNHCR Canada spokewoman Melanie Gallant in an interview. 

At this point, "it's not really a crisis" for Europe or the United States, she said, nor does the UNHCR expect it to become one.

Instead, it's neighbouring countries who are bearing the brunt of Afghanistan's flow of refugees. 

The UNHCR is planning for up to 500,000 people in Pakistan, Iran and other nearby countries, though Gallant estimates the actual numbers haven't approached that yet, as Afghans who want to flee may not have the means or the necessary visas to leave.

Afghan refugee children attend a class on the outskirts of Lahore, Pakistan, on Aug. 27. After 40 years of strife and conflict in the country, more than 1.5 million Afghan refugees are still living in Pakistan. (K.M. Chaudary/The Associated Press)

Last month, immediately after Kabul fell, more than 100,000 people were hastily airlifted out of Afghanistan by the U.S. military and its coalition partners, including Canada. Those rescued were mainly a mix of foreign nationals and Afghans who worked closely with NATO troops, making them potential targets for a vengeful Taliban.

Officials in Ottawa say 3,500 people came to Canada during the mass evacuations: 1,500 to 2,000 Afghan citizens, and the rest Canadians or residents.

But Ottawa has committed to taking 20,000 Afghan refugees, including those it considers to be the most vulnerable — women, girls and members of Afghanistan's LGBTQ community, as well as those who worked with Canadian Forces.

Some 7,000 Afghans have already come to Canada in the last few years.

The U.S. is preparing for 34,000 new arrivals, with many staying in third countries — Colombia and Uganda, for example — temporarily for security screening and processing.

The U.K. has also promised to take in 20,000 Afghan refugees: 5,000 in 2021 and the rest in the coming years.

Still, other countries are firmly closing their doors. Turkey's military has been sent to evict refugees already inside its borders and to prevent new ones from coming in, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisting that his country would not become the EU's "migrant storage unit."

Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared that Moscow "doesn't want militants under the guise of refugees."

China is also not accepting any Afghan refugees, worried, in part, that they could import unwelcome religious and political ideas to Xinjiang, the region bordering Afghanistan. It's also the region where Beijing has been working forcefully to supress the local Uyghur population and Muslim practices.

Driven by a mix of violence, fear and rising uncertainty as the Taliban consolidates control in Afghanistan, Gallant cautions that the flow of those displaced is a "volatile situation," which could still upend current estimates and predictions.


  • A previous version of this story mistakenly said that last year, well over three million Afghans found their way abroad. In fact, that was the number who had left the country as of last year.
    Sep 14, 2021 1:47 PM ET


Saša Petricic

Senior Correspondent

Saša Petricic is a Senior Correspondent for CBC News, specializing in international coverage. He has spent the past decade reporting from abroad, most recently in Beijing as CBC's Asia Correspondent, focusing on China, Hong Kong, and North and South Korea. Before that, he covered the Middle East from Jerusalem through the Arab Spring and wars in Syria, Gaza and Libya. Over more than 30 years, he has filed stories from every continent.