Are Afghans Refugees?
Are Afghans refugees? On the one hand, if we think of the Afghan translators and their families airlifted out of Kabul, the common answer is yes, absolutely. On the other hand, if we think of those leaving the country after the Taliban takeover because they would prefer to live somewhere with more freedom, opportunity or economic prosperity, the answer, according to many people, is no, definitely not. The people in the first group are considered political refugees, the second merely unfortunate or poor. But can we continue to make such a distinction? When we look at the situation in Afghanistan — and take seriously the role of climate change — we quickly see how arbitrary this distinction really is.
The global refugee protection system excludes many people from the category “refugee” who also need help. Some humanitarian organizations and scholars believe a narrow definition of “refugee” is necessary in order to persuade wealthy countries and their citizens to care about and help refugees. Otherwise, perhaps countries would be so worried about the sheer number of people who might ask to be allowed into their countries that they would close their doors completely. One group that has traditionally been distinguished from political refugees are economic migrants. Economic migrants are people who, though poor, can continue to live in their home countries. They may need financial aid, but not a place in a new country. By contrast, refugees are people who are forced to flee their home countries because if they stay they will be killed, tortured or suffer some other kind of grave harm. But in the 21st century, this distinction seems to be called into question in a profound way.
Take the group mentioned above — Afghans who believe that they can no longer live safely or with dignity in Afghanistan. Which Afghans should be considered refugees, deserving of aid and protection, and which Afghans are not entitled to help, despite being desperately needy? This is a difficult question to answer. At first glance, it appears that we can draw the line based on responsibility, where the US has a responsibility to help those who face harm as a consequence of our actions. But a deeper look at cause and consequence suggests that our distinctions between refugee and migrant are flimsy.
The global refugee protection system excludes many people from the category “refugee” who also need help.
According to many people’s intuitions, anyone who helped the US mission in Afghanistan, especially those who fought side by side with US troops and risked their lives, ought to be allowed to move to the US and be given refugee status. We owe a debt of gratitude to this group. Granting them refugee status would allow them, and their families, to live in the US permanently and rebuild their lives. In fact, there was historically high support for resettling this group of refugees in the US immediately following the withdrawal, and a majority of Americans believed we have a “duty” to help. There is a widely held view that the US has a moral responsibility to this group.
This perspective understands our responsibility to those in need in terms of causality: the US played a direct causal role in creating the conditions that have forced these people from their homes. US action is the reason that these people are refugees, and this seems to require that we take responsibility for our actions. You might think of this as the Pottery Barn rule — you break it, you buy it. Since we effectively “broke” Afghanistan over the 20-year occupation and allowed it to be taken over by the Taliban, we own it in a sense, and this means that we owe a home to the people displaced by our actions.
Other Afghans who believe they can no longer live with safety or dignity in Afghanistan are unlikely to receive such positive support. Yet we have seen and will continue to see large numbers of Afghans leaving Afghanistan. Recently, many Afghans are fleeing starvation. This is not a word used to mean “very hungry” or to be dramatic: the current drought conditions in Afghanistan mean that roughly half the population is on the brink of dying because they do not have enough food to eat. Upwards of one million children may die this winter from starvation, a figure which exceeds the number of Afghan civilians that have been killed in 20 years of war. We can expect many people to try to leave Afghanistan in search of basic sustenance and simply to survive. Because they are fleeing “poverty,” not persecution, it is unlikely that they will be received with the same support — or level of sympathy — as Afghans who helped the US military, even though if they remain in Afghanistan, they will suffer similarly grave harms as the harms that threaten Afghans who helped the US. Starvation, or perhaps worse, watching your children starve and being unable to do anything about it, is as grave as harm can get.
We might not have “broken” Afghanistan directly via our consumption of fossil fuels, but we have directly and substantially contributed to the conditions which created the current drought that many are fleeing.
Some people in the US justify excluding these Afghans entry to the US because the US did not cause the harm they are fleeing — their suffering does not seem to be due to direct US actions or policy. Poverty is complex, of course, and connected to many different factors, including the actions of the Afghan governments both before and during the drought, along with a myriad of international economic policies. Yet if we scratch below the surface and try to understand what caused the drought, we are faced with an answer no less of our own making than war: climate change.
According to the Climate Security Expert Network, the average annual temperature has increased 1.8 degrees Celsius in Afghanistan since 1950, and heavy rain events have increased by between 10–25% over the past 30 years. It's well-known that water and land scarcity increase conflict, which can lead to other forms of political instability. Interestingly, opium poppies tend to be drought resistant and can flourish when other crops fail.
We know beyond any doubt that wealthy industrialized countries have played an outsized role in the intensification of climate change. While climate change might not be the only factor in the drought that is forcing people to leave, it is a large causal factor. We might not have “broken” Afghanistan directly via our consumption of fossil fuels, but we have directly and substantially contributed to the conditions which created the current drought that many are fleeing.
What this demonstrates, I think, is the need to reconsider the categories we use to think about people who are displaced and those whom we have a moral responsibility to help. If we turn to the 20th century political philosopher Hannah Arendt, we can see why rethinking our categories is so essential. Writing in light of the experience of totalitarianism, she urged people to “think without banisters.” By this she meant that we need to stop unthinkingly applying old categories to new situations. Instead, we should consider what is novel in each situation, each problem, we face. According to Arendt, we must be open enough to appreciate what is genuinely new in each situation. Her perspective on openness and novelty is based on her view of human beings as beginners, creatures who can make real what is new and unpredictable. For her, thinking generates understanding, something that is very different from having correct information or scientific knowledge. It does not matter that thinking in this sense may not lead to “solutions” or new policies to implement. It’s nonetheless essential for creating a world that we can share with others and feel at home in.
What the Afghan situation shows [...] is that we keep applying the same concepts that might have been useful in the past to vastly new terrain, a terrain created by the complexities of climate change.
What would it mean to “think without banisters” regarding refugees? What the Afghan situation shows, I think, is that we keep applying the same concepts that might have been useful in the past to vastly new terrain, a terrain created by the complexities of climate change. The distinctions that we rely on — especially the distinction between genuine refugees and mere economic migrants —are no longer able to express something truthful about the duties that we have towards those people and the situation they’re facing. As I have shown, some of our fundamental moral intuitions about causation and responsibility highlight the similarities rather than the differences between these two categories. And yet, we hold on to those old distinctions because we don’t yet have a better set of concepts to capture our current experiences or the complexities of causation when it comes to climate change.
Nonetheless, these distinctions must be reexamined and reworked because there is so much at stake for the very people affected by our categories. Arendt urges us to examine our language and categories with an understanding of what’s at stake in our distinctions. In the case of the category of “refugee,” the harm that’s done to people who are excluded from this category may be immense. A narrow understanding of political refugees allows us to normalize our neglect of many others who are displaced but do not fall neatly into the category of refugee. “If the series of crises in which we have lived since the beginning of the century can teach us anything at all,” writes Arendt, “it is, I think, the simple fact that there are no general standards to determine our judgments unfailingly, no general rules under which to subsume the particular cases with any degree of certainty.” We cannot continue to subsume some people under the category refugee and exclude others as mere migrants without being morally arbitrary. Our distinctions must take seriously the profound role Western countries have played in climate change and the impacts, small and large, it is having on human displacement.
This, I think, is what Arendt means by saying, the wisdom of the past “dies, so to speak, in our hands as soon as we try to apply it honestly to the central political experiences of our time.” The wisdom of the past, in this case, is that we can make clear and morally sufficient distinctions between migrants and refugees, those who deserve our help and those who don’t. This is no longer possible.
We need — but don’t currently have — a more holistic way of thinking about refugees, one that centers the way that the harms of climate change are impacting everything. We must integrate climate change into our narratives of what makes someone a refugee, but we don’t yet have a vocabulary that discloses this new reality. Our very language, even as we try to respond to refugees in the 21st century, is inadequate to the task. This, I think, is important to keep in mind when we ask the question, are Afghans refugees?
 For those interested in a more academic analysis of the problem with this distinction, see Rebecca Hamlin, Crossing: How We Label and React to People on the Move.  Hannah Arendt, “The Crisis Character of Modern Society” in Thinking Without a Banister (New York: Schocken, 2021), p. 335.  Arendt, “Understanding and Politics” in Essays in Understanding 1930–1954 (New York: Schocken1994), p. 309.
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