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Afghanistan is a preview of future migration crises

The Afghanistan situation — hundreds of thousands of people desperate to flee their country with few safe and accepting places to go — is just one sign of a future that will be shaped by a growing migration crisis.

Why it matters: Whether because of violence, persecution, climate change or economic distress, rising numbers of people will leave the only homes they've known in search of a safer and better life abroad — even as the politics in destination countries sours on accepting them.


By the numbers: Even before their government collapsed in the face of American military withdrawal — prompting a mad dash for safety by people who'd worked with the U.S. and feared Taliban persecution — Afghans were fleeing their country in huge numbers.

  • According to UN data, 1.5 million Afghans fled to Pakistan in 2020, while another 780,000 escaped to neighboring Iran.
  • That's just one part of a growing migration crisis around the world — on the U.S. southern border, officials reported nearly 200,000 encounters with migrants in July, the highest monthly total in nearly two decades.
  • Dangerous migrant boat departures from northern Africa to southern Europe have been increasing in recent months, and more than 1,100 people have died on the Mediterranean so far this year.

The big picture: 82.4 million people worldwide had been forcibly displaced from their homes as of the end of 2020, more than twice the total in 2011.

  • Nearly half of them had been forced to leave their countries of origin, with the rest displaced internally.
  • Those numbers are only likely to grow. According to a study from last year, more than 1 billion people globally could be displaced by 2050 because of climate change and its destabilizing effects.

Between the lines: Growing numbers of migrants and refugees are escaping their homes at the very moment when international politics towards migration have turned sharply negative.

  • According to the UN High Commission on Human Rights, last year fewer than 35,000 refugees out of 20.7 million were actually resettled in a new country — a fraction of one percent.
  • Greece — which saw nearly a million refugees enter its territory after the 2015 Syrian crisis — is erecting a 25 mile-long, heavily-surveilled fence along its border with Turkey to stop asylum seekers from Afghanistan.
  • In the U.S., the Supreme Court on Tuesday blocked the Biden administration's efforts to roll back former President Trump's "Remain in Mexico" policy for asylum seekers coming to the southern border. (The White House itself has expedited deportations and repeatedly messaged to migrants that they should not try to come to the U.S.)

Context: What's unfolding is one of the mega-trends of the 21st century: more people willing and often forced to leave their homes, and a colder welcome in destination countries, including the U.S.

  • A recent Harvard/Harris poll found that 80% of Americans think undocumented immigration is "very serious" or "somewhat serious" problem, while 64% think the government should institute stricter border policies to reduce the border flow, leaving the political landscape on immigration "incredibly polarized," notes Dick Burke, the CEO of the immigration services company Envoy Global.
  • European leaders — fearful of another populist backlash — are resistant to taking on Afghan refugees, with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell Fontelles saying recently that member states want “to ensure no wide-scale migratory move toward Europe.”
  • The pandemic led to unprecedented border closures around the world, which choked off both documented and undocumented migration while possibly setting a template for future restrictions.

What they're saying: "If the principal political and economic binary of the world 20 years ago was left versus right, today it's open versus closed," says Alec Ross, a former U.S. diplomat and the author of the forthcoming book "The Raging 2020s."

What's next: While politics and public opinion are trending in the direction of a closed world, other factors point toward the need for more migration, not less.

  • Low fertility rates mean that aging rich countries will need more people even as population growth continues in many of the countries that are already generating migrants and asylum seekers.
  • The economic benefits of immigrants — including asylum seekers — are real, and the U.S. will "definitely need them if we’re going to economically compete with China," writes the economist Noah Smith.

The bottom line: A more open world may be the right one for both altruistic and self-interested reasons, but getting there requires dismantling both physical and political barriers.

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