As Afghanistan falls into the hands of the Taliban, a refugee crisis is all but inevitable. While focus so far has been on evacuating interpreters and other locals who have worked for the United States and its allies, the reality is that we should expect a massive exodus of Afghans in the near future. During the height of the Syrian civil war from 2011 to 2017, nearly one quarter of Syria’s population left. If the same ratio repeats in Afghanistan, that would mean about 10 million refugees.
There is one key difference this time: For the past several decades, Europe has taken in most refugees fleeing trouble spots. Not just Syria, but those fleeing Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. In 2007, the Swedish city of Södertälje (population 100,000) welcomed more Iraqi refugees than the entire United States and Canada combined. The rise of ISIS led to the largest wave of refugees into Europe since World War II. The political environment in Europe has changed dramatically in recent years, however, and no government with any sense of political self-preservation would allow the kind of mass immigration seen in 2015. Politics aside, the economic situation simply would not allow a repeat of 2015, as Western European countries are still struggling to assimilate those who have come here during the last two decades, and the ongoing costs of caring for them has put a serious strain on our social safety nets. America will have to clean up its own mess this time.
As a European with experience of working with economic and migration policy, and who witnessed what happened in my home country of Sweden, I have seen what works—and especially what doesn’t.
The United States needs to set up “safe zones.” Ideally, these safe zones should have been inside Afghanistan, but it’s too late for that now. Hence, they need to be located in nearby regions. Massive refugee camps, complete with the infrastructure necessary to facilitate long term accommodation, will be necessary since refugees will not be able to leave any time soon: Water treatment plants, makeshift hospitals, schools, law enforcement to keep the peace within the camps (refugees will come from many different—and often rival—tribes), and of course military. And the safe zones will need protection too, from either the Taliban or from local gangs and militias, depending on where they are located. These safe zones will have to be somewhat close to and accessible from Afghanistan, as refugees need to be able to reach them by land (airlifts are unlikely to be an option for most of them).