The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan is having a multidirectional impact on the mobility of Afghans. While radical shifts in the political and economic life of the country are driving an outflux of Afghans, the sudden drop in violent incidents may enable new patterns of connectivity and mobility inside the country. Geographic mobility can be categorised as cross-border (interstate), cross-country (intrastate), and local forms of human movement, with various levels of permanence, in pursuit of different goals. It is still difficult to predict in the long term what the Taliban’s rise to power will mean for internal and external mobility. However, it is certain that while international mobility remains a major challenge, domestic movement has changed in new ways as the conflict environment evolves.
Many Afghans who felt that Taliban control posed a great risk to their personal safety have tried to flee the country out of fear of reprisal. Many more wish to leave because they do not think they have a place in the country in the current context. The United States alone airlifted more than a hundred thousand vulnerable Afghans out of the country. At the same time, the flow of foreign funds into the country has virtually stopped, precipitating a catastrophic humanitarian crisis and a surge in economic emigration. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees predicted in late August that up to one million Afghans may flee their homeland by the end of 2021.
The migration of Afghans across land borders has been slow so far because governments of neighbouring Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey, as well as countries in Europe, have stepped up border restrictions. While Pakistan's political leadership at times has tried to downplay the risk of refugee exodus, countering the narrative that most Afghans wish not to live under Taliban rule, Pakistani leaders have also said that “Pakistan is in no condition right now to accept any more refugees”. Pakistani local government officials have stated that even if an emergency unfolds, new refugee camps should be set up on the Afghan side of the border. The country already hosts 1.5 million Afghan refugees, some of whom have been living there for more than 30 years. Iran, home to the second-largest Afghan refugee population after Pakistan, is also stepping up border measures in the face of increasing flows of Afghans seeking security and livelihoods. European countries, often the ultimate destination for Afghans travelling through Pakistan and Iran, are signalling that they are unwilling to accept new refugees, and Turkey, a major gateway to Europe, is increasing restrictions on its border with Iran. In the emergency G20 meeting on Afghanistan (October 13, 2021) the European Union pledged USD 1.15bn to Afghanistan and its neighbours which are taking in refugees. Humanitarian aid will be critical in slowing down the pace of the Afghan exodus.
Since the beginning of this year, the sharp increase in violence that pre-empted the Taliban’s takeover of the country has led to an additional 400,000 internally displaced Afghans, on top of 2.9 million who were already internally displaced. Many of those displaced during the intense fighting between June and August were sheltering in Kabul. The drop in violence that followed the Taliban military victory makes it possible for many to return to their homes in parts of the country that until recently were all but unliveable. Many displaced families are returning to their homes, at the behest of Taliban authorities in the capital who claim to have already facilitated the return of more than a thousand families by mid-October. However, the process has been slow, especially for the families from the north who were part of the last wave of displacement before Kabul fell. Thousands more families are living in open areas of Kabul, some lacking income and shelter as winter is fast approaching. Other groups are facing increasing risk of displacement with the Taliban’s takeover. In addition to the expulsion of Afghans from Panjsheer province due to the Taliban’s heavy-handed military approach to countering resistance, the balance of power has shifted against Hazaras in central Afghanistan causing mass expulsions from the area. Many Panjsheeris and Hazaras are finding their way to Pakistan and Iran to avoid further Taliban aggression. The increasing threat of the so-called Islamic State of Khurasan is likely to prompt Shias of Afghanistan, who are mostly Hazaras, to seek safety in Shia-majority Iran.
The prevalence of the Taliban across the country has caused an unprecedented reduction in violence, especially in rural Afghanistan. In mid-September, a doctor in Wardak province, less than 100 km from Kabul, reported that for the first time in over two decades of his work there, they had no patients with conflict-related injuries. Reduced barriers to the overland movements of goods and people are opening new patterns of connectivity and movement inside the country, which may present opportunities for decentralised approaches to aid delivery to reach the most vulnerable Afghans. Truck drivers tell reporters that extorsion and bribery have virtually stopped on major highways. At the same time, however, other parts of society are seeing a return to some of the Taliban’s well-documented oppressive policies. While there is uncertainty around women’s freedom of movement with documented divergences between formal policy and practice as well as a regional variation, the prognosis for Afghan women is not positive. Especially considering that the Afghan conflict has left many Afghan families with a matriarch, who may have no choice but to leave Afghanistan to survive potential Taliban restrictions on women's activities in the public domain.
Government and NGO jobs were a major drive for rapid urbanisation in Afghanistan. The collapse of the country’s foreign-dependent economy dramatically reduced the appeal of urban centres driving Afghans to migrate from cities to rural areas. Many employees of the former government and NGOs have been among the first to leave Kabul. Migrating back to rural areas may help reduce living costs for the urban-to-rural migrants but they face uncertain futures in rural Afghanistan. While the agricultural sector will likely become an increasingly important source of livelihoods, with exports able to generate the foreign currency that Afghanistan badly needs to import other necessities, many mobile Afghans had severed their ties to land in their villages, lost farming skills, and will be returning to rural Afghanistan during a severe draught. It is crucial that humanitarian aid, especially food, consider the impact it may have on the Afghan agricultural sector. Investment in sustainable farming is needed to enable Afghans to capitalize on the new opportunities for revival in the countryside that have emerged with the drop in violence.
The points explored in this article underscore how Afghans may be even more economically vulnerable in the face of political and economic isolation now than they were during the last period of Taliban rule in the 1990s. Though much of the international community’s attention remains focused on the movements of Afghans looking to flee the country, internal mobility dynamics present opportunities and challenges as longer-term needs for humanitarian aid and development support emerge.