In Brief

Where Will Afghan Refugees Go?

Experts expect that most new Afghan refugees will flee to neighboring Iran and Pakistan, where hundreds of thousands of Afghans already reside.

Tens of thousands of Afghans have scrambled to flee their country since the Taliban took over Kabul and much of the rest of the country last month. Half a million people could flee Afghanistan [PDF] by the end of the year, according to the UN refugee agency. Historical refugee flows offer insights into where Afghans could go in the coming months.

Most Afghans Will Stay in the Region

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Even before the Taliban’s takeover, Afghanistan produced 10 percent of the world’s refugees, reflecting a sharp deterioration in the country’s security. A severe drought and the COVID-19 pandemic had compounded the crisis.

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Experts say a majority of Afghans fleeing their homes will likely remain in Afghanistan. Hundreds of thousands of these internally displaced people had already fled amid the Taliban’s latest offensive, which began in May. Many lack access to health care and sufficient food and shelter. 

Of the Afghans who leave their country, most will cross by land into neighboring Iran and Pakistan. In 2020, there were 2.2 million documented Afghan refugees and asylum seekers in these two countries, amounting to nearly 80 percent of the global total. Iran and Pakistan have so far resisted hosting more displaced Afghans, closing some border crossings and vowing to deport undocumented Afghan migrants. But many poorer Afghans don’t have a choice: lacking access to passports and visas for authorized travel, some could be pushed to move into these countries using unofficial crossings, says American University’s Tazreena Sajjad, who studies refugees and forced displacement. Additionally, Afghans will likely be pulled there because of the proximity and family members who are already living there.

A group of Afghans walk between fences covered in barbed wire at a Afghanistan-Pakistan border crossing.
Afghans walk through an Afghanistan-Pakistan border crossing in August 2021 following the Taliban’s takeover. AFP/Getty Images

Some people could eventually be resettled in a third country [PDF], such as the United States. Tens of thousands of Afghans have already journeyed through Iran on foot in an effort to reach Turkey, where millions of migrants have either stayed or transited through on their ways to Europe over the past decade. 

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Some Will Go to the U.S. and Europe

Between 2001 and July 2021, the United States admitted nearly twenty-one thousand Afghan refugees. Prior to the current crisis, an even larger number of Afghans—seventy-six thousand—were allowed into the United States with special immigrant visas (SIVs), which are available to individuals who worked with U.S. troops and their families during the war. Some of the eighty thousand non-U.S. civilians evacuated by the United States in recent weeks already have or are eligible for SIVs. However, their futures remain unclear: several thousand evacuees have made it to the United States, but many more are being temporarily housed at U.S. military bases around the world.

Officials in many European Union countries have been reluctant to welcome more Afghan refugees, fearing a repeat of 2015, when 1.3 million migrants—nearly 200,000 of them Afghans—applied for asylum. In an effort to prevent refugees from reaching Europe, EU interior ministers pledged to boost assistance to Iran, Pakistan, and other countries. However, France and Germany, which together were home to more than 180,000 Afghan refugees and asylum seekers in 2020, are among a few that have shown a willingness to host refugees from the ongoing exodus.

More on:

Afghanistan

Afghanistan War

Refugees and Displaced Persons

Immigration and Migration

U.S. Foreign Policy

Recommended Resources

In its latest report [PDF], the UN refugee agency describes the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan.

The Wall Street Journal explains how Afghans will be resettled in the United States.

Al Jazeera tells the stories of Afghans who have fled to Pakistan.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) maps where internally displaced Afghans have moved to.

Will Merrow created the graphic for this article.

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