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The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan: the impact on Afghan people and families


By Dr Kelly Staples  

Desperate scenes at Kabul airport last month served as many outside of the region’s first insight into the worsening political and humanitarian situation in the country. As one provincial capital after another fell to the Taliban, urban families, as well as families which had first fled conflict and violence in rural areas, faced the dilemma of whether and how to try to move themselves to safety. Thousands of people attempted to evacuate the country aboard departing military airlifts, and it is not yet clear how many people made it out. What we do know from past practice is that that the road to safety and security for many of them will be a long one, especially for those ‘in limbo’ in transit hubs awaiting processing. 

The UK government has reported that 15,000 people – mainly UK nationals or those with existing eligibility – were airlifted to safety in late August, with many more entitled in principle to humanitarian status in the UK left stranded. Media has reported that a lower priority was given to UK nationals of Afghan origin. Indeed, my research has examined the lower status often accorded to dual nationals, or even people assumed to be dual nationals by the UK Home Office. It has also been reported that eligible Afghan nationals who had worked alongside the UK military had been unable to make flights out of the country. It has also been apparent that ‘many Afghans who built peace—fostering justice and democracy’—were not considered as worthy of evacuation, even amid reports of planes leaving Afghanistan three-quarters empty.  

Many high-profile at-risk women with relevant connections to the UK remain in Afghanistan. The UK Research and Innovation-funded Global Challenges Research Fund Gender Hub has been urgently advocating for Afghan women researchers working on sensitive projects ‘that include the promotion of women’s rights and gender equality’. The Hub has called for the UK government to resettle them with their families. UK law does allow for certain family members of people with a formal protection status – including children under 18 – to be resettled (generally at substantial cost). However, there are various restrictions in place, which can be seen as part of a wider global issue for displaced families. In the UK, unaccompanied children with leave to remain cannot sponsor their family members, even parents or guardians, to join them. Other industrialised countries have recently enacted even harsher practices, such as the notorious US policy that forcibly separated more than 5,000 children form their parents early in the Trump presidency. My research has shown that human wellbeing requires formal legal status and loving relationships; all such policies are therefore catastrophic in terms of these children’s rights and wellbeing. 

Whatever the final number of Afghans resettled in other countries, it is always worth noting that the majority of the world’s refugees are hosted in countries neighbouring their own, and that the global scale of internal displacement far exceeds that of international displacement. According to data from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, violence and conflict have newly internally displaced around 592,500 people, 87,300 families, and 37,700 children in Afghanistan this year, with a significant spike in July. Some 80% of those forced to flee since the end of May are said to be women and children, though surprisingly little is known about the reasons for this pattern, which has also been found in other displacement contexts. In Yemen, humanitarian groups suggested that this was ‘likely because many men are forcibly recruited to fight by armed groups, so are unable to flee with the women’, and that some men and young boys stay longer at home (or return earlier) to protect assets. Women’s experiences of internal displacement are also gendered in significant ways, and displacement can reinforce pre-existing disadvantages, and lead to a range of issues for them, any children they may have, and any children born while displaced. For the latter group, a fundamental risk is the risk of statelessness associated with unregistered births, a relationship I have examined in my research 

UNICEF has recently expressed concern that ‘hundreds of children have been separated from their families amidst chaotic conditions’ and recalled that: ‘All children have the right to be with their families’. UNICEF and other organisations do vital work protecting and supporting displaced children, but it remains to be seen how far the Taliban will allow humanitarian access to the Afghan people in the coming months. Aid agency activity in the country has already contracted substantially in recent years out of concerns about security of aid workers and corruption. Ongoing challenges to humanitarian access – including Taliban and donor demands – have meant that ‘coverage of humanitarian needs has been patchy, inadequate, and often skewed toward areas of lesser need where aid organisations find it safer to operate’. This is at clear odds with humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence. The recent contraction of the UK’s budget for overseas development, and a range of economic sanctions against the Taliban regime may also contribute towards worsening conditions for ordinary people’s everyday lives in a country affected by ‘decades of unremitting armed conflict, recurrent natural disasters, and extreme poverty’. As I have found in my research on the uncertainties of protection, the risks to civilians in these circumstances are heightened both by domestic fragility and the practical weaknesses of international humanitarian law.

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