Africa and Latin America become stopovers for Afghan refugees

Afghanistan updates

Uganda and Colombia are among developing countries offering temporary asylum to hundreds of evacuees from Afghanistan in transit to the US and other western nations.

Since the mid-August takeover of Kabul by the Taliban, thousands of people have rushed to leave Afghanistan, but as entry processes for many western nations slowed the process, less wealthy economies volunteered to help out.

A string of nations, mainly in the global south, “have made generous offers regarding the relocation efforts for at-risk Afghans”, US secretary of state Antony Blinken said this month. Rwanda, Mexico and Costa Rica among others have joined in volunteering to take people in. Even the self-declared east African state of Somaliland, which already hosts Yemeni refugees, is in discussions with the US to join in the efforts, a local government official told the Financial Times.

Mexico’s foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard, left, welcomes members of the original Afghan all-girls robotics team © Eduardo Verdugo/AP

At the end of last year, Pakistan and Iran already hosted the largest bulk of Afghan refugees — more than 1.4m and 950,000, respectively. Overall, according to the UN refugee agency, 86 per cent of the world’s refugees and Venezuelans displaced abroad were in developing countries last year, and the least developed countries were home to 27 per cent of the total.

These countries “first and foremost show solidarity and support to people affected by conflict and crisis”, even though they “have limited voice in multilateral spaces shaping conflict prevention, peace and development policies” and are “under-resourced”, according to Cecilia Milesi, the Argentine founder of the Global Change Centre, a platform to enhance co-operation across southern nations.

Some countries are insisting their support is only temporary, however. Uganda, which runs a generous refugee policy and is home to more than 1.5m refugees, mainly from South Sudan, first vowed to host 2,000 Afghan evacuees on the request of the US government. But a few days later it reduced the number to 145. The 51 Afghans who landed in Uganda last week, were “evacuees and not refugees”, said Chris Baryomunsi, Uganda’s minister for information and technology.

In Latin America, Colombia’s President Iván Duque said in joint remarks with the US ambassador to Bogotá that his country was “joining the group of allied countries which will offer support to the US” to allow the processing of Afghan citizens who worked for the US. The US will pay the cost of the Afghans’ stay in the Andean country, which is already home to 2m Venezuelan migrants.

Costa Rica, which hosts Nicaraguan refugees, said it had agreed to accept 48 Afghan women who had worked with the UN.

Mexico has welcomed at least 200 Afghans, including media workers and their families and five members of a female robotics team. “Mexico receives you with open arms,” Mexico’s foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard told them, promising “all the support necessary” and citing “the Mexican tradition of asylum and refuge”.

Mexico took in refugees fleeing fascism during the Spanish Civil War, as well as victims of South America’s dictatorships in the 1970s and Guatemala’s civil war in the 1980s. But it has also sought to stem the thousands of Central American migrants who transit through its territory to the US border each year, deploying its national guard.

Javier Urbano, a migration expert at the Ibero-American University, said the offer to take in Afghans was “something situational so the Mexican government gets some prestige”.

Afghan evacuees ride on a courtesy bus to their accommodation upon arrival at the Entebbe International Airport in Uganda
Afghan evacuees ride on a courtesy bus to their accommodation upon arrival at the Entebbe International Airport in Uganda © Abubaker Lubowa/Reuters

Rwanda also has a tradition of welcoming refugees; it already hosts some 130,000 people, mainly from Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as some 200 people from countries in the Horn of Africa who were held in detention centres in Libya. 

When nearly 250 Afghan schoolgirls, their families and boarding school staff arrived in Rwanda last week, the government greeted them with the traditional Kinyarwanda phrase: Murakaza neza, or welcome.

It is not yet clear whether the Afghan students it has taken in will stay in the long term. The evacuees will spend a semester in the central African nation while the situation on the ground in Afghanistan develops, according to Shabana Basij-Rasikh, co-founder and president of the School of Leadership, Afghanistan (SOLA).

“SOLA is resettling, but our resettlement is not permanent. A semester abroad is exactly what we’re planning,” she tweeted. “When circumstances on the ground permit, we hope to return home to Afghanistan.”

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