Why are most Afghans who are fleeing, going to neighboring countries?

Did you know that a majority of the refugees from the Middle East live in the region? Lebanon & Jordan host millions of people who have fled war, conflict or other disasters. There are an estimated 1.5 million Syrians in Lebanon, for example. In Pakistan, the story is similar : about three million Afghans reside in the country.

 With the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and the unstable situation driving people out, there are fears of a massive refugee outflow from Afghanistan.  While the discourse around refugees in the US is centered around those who are arriving here, here is some perspective on the actual numbers. As the UNHCR points out, 90 percent of the refugees from Afghanistan currently live in two countries: Iran and Pakistan. This is mainly due to proximity. The decades of hospitality that the countries have provided the Afghan refugees is something one must consider.  

Children pose for photographs in front of their tents at a camp for internally displaced families in Panjwai district of Kandahar province on March 31, 2021. (Photo by JAVED TANVEER / AFP) (Photo by JAVED TANVEER/AFP via Getty Images)

Pakistan : With an estimated three million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, there is increasing pressure on Pakistan to accept the new influx of people at its borders. The country’s leadership is reluctant to accept more people, given its own economic situation and threats of any security breaches.  The proximity of Pakistan to Afghanistan makes it an easy destination to seek safety, as most of those fleeing Afghanistan are doing so, due to the security risks they are facing.

Iran : With over 780,000 Afghan refugees in Iran, it is important to look at what the country has decided to do, with the anticipated influx of Afghans into the country. Iran offers some limited amount of opportunities for Afghan refugees to live and work in the country, with work permits and other permissions through national ID cards. Afghans return to their country of origin each year, due to loss of work or other factors. The migration across Iran-Afghan borders is quite fluid.  As a scholar points out, the differences between the refugee burden sharing between the rich and developing countries is unequal. As Tazreena Sajjad points out “But over the past 40 years, U.S. acceptance rates for refugees worldwide have fallen significantly – from 200,000 admitted in 1980 to less than 50,000 in 2019.”

India: With proximity to Afghanistan, it is expected that many Afghans will consider India a destination, but so far, the signals from the government have been cautious. Some of the messages have been even discouraging towards the majority of Afghans. By suggesting that India will prioritize just minorities (Hindus and Sikhs) the government has sent a clear signal towards the country, suggesting it will not have an open-door policy towards refugees from its neighbor. As CPPR analysts point out, India is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee convention or the 1967 protocol on Refugee rights. The Afghan refugees who are in India are struggling to secure their long-term rights as residents in India.

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