Expanding Afghan diaspora in America

Conflicts have contributed to the creation of a large Asian-American community

Shahid Javed Burki July 06, 2021
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

A cursory look at the United States demographic situation shows how the international conflicts the country got engaged in since the end of the Second World War have left their demographic impact. They created communities of residents who once belonged to countries where the Americans sent in their troops. These conflicts have contributed to the creation of a large Asian-American community. There are now 21 million people of Asian-origin residing in the US. That accounts for 6.5% of the country’s total population. Almost one-half of the total is of Chinese and Indian origin. Both communities have a long history of arrival in the US. Those from the region that was once known as Indo-China and is now made up of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, arrived mostly as a result of the war the Americans fought in that area in the 1950s and 1960s. The largest number — 2.163 million — is from Vietnam. Hmong account for 320,000 people; Cambodians, 300,000; and Laotians, 262,000. Hmongs are people of Chinese origin who lived in Vietnam and Laos.

The American Community Survey, ACS, estimated that a total of 94,726 foreign-born Afghan immigrants resided in the US in 2016. This represented a 30% increase in 10 years. Some of the relative newcomers were either born in Pakistan or migrated from there after first taking refuge in the neighbouring country. Some five million people were displaced during the decade-long war with the Soviet Union in the 1980s. They mostly settled in Pakistan and Iran and from there made it to the European Union, North America and Australia. Germany now has a large Afghan diaspora. This was augmented when more than a million refugees moved into the country from Syria and other hot spots in the Middle East.

For the moment, the Afghans in the US do not make the list of 13 countries that have more than 200,000 people living in the US. That will most certainly change as a result of the planned evacuation of tens of thousands of Afghans once the US has made its exit from the country.

The question of relocating the Afghans who had worked for the Americans while the latter were in their country began to be addressed with some urgency as the US carried out its plans to exit by September 11, 2021. According to one report, the Pentagon had contingency plans to evacuate as many as 100,000 people under the plan that was being worked out to take the people who had aided the Americans during the two decades the US was in Afghanistan. John F Kirby, the chief Defense Department spokesman, told newspaper reporters that the Defense and State Departments and the White House were still working out the details. He talked to the newspapers a day before President Ashraf Ghani visited the White House and met with President Joe Biden. Joining Ghani in the meeting was Abdullah Abdullah who is Chief Executive in the Afghan government. He is a Tajik while Ghani is a Pashtun. The meeting took place on Friday, June 26, 2021, and the subject of relocating the Afghans probably came up for discussion.

Kirby said that he had not seen any number that was part of the planning for bringing out the Afghans who had served the Americans in Afghanistan. That said, the evacuation plans were to use a combination of military and chartered civilian aircrafts. “More than 18,000 Afghans who have worked as interpreters, drivers, engineers, security guards, fixers and embassy clerks for the US during the war have been trapped in bureaucratic limbo after applying for special immigrant visas, available to people who face threats because of work done for the US government. Those applicants have 53,000 family members,” Kirby told the press. This would mean evacuating more than 70,000 Afghans out of their country in the next month or so.

There was considerable political pressure on the Biden administration to act quickly before the Taliban made more advances in Afghanistan. Jason Crow, Democrat of Colorado and a former Army Ranger who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said on Twitter on June 25, that everyday counts. “We can’t wait any longer.” Crow is part of the “Honoring Our Promises Working Group” made up of 10 Democrats and six Republicans in the US Congress. The group introduced legislation that would expedite special immigrant visas from Afghanistan and expand the number available to 19,000 from 11,000. There was consensus among those who had knowledge of what was happening in Afghanistan that it would be unwise to let the Afghans who had applied for visas wait out in their own country.

There were discussions with some of the leaders of the countries and territories that would provide temporary residence to the evacuees while they wait for the paperwork needed by the US immigration authorities. Some countries in the Middle East had been approached. The matter might have been discussed as well with policy people in Islamabad. Guam, a US territory, was the most likely destination. It was there that the “Vietnamese boat people” were taken when they fled their country following the hasty withdrawal of US troops. In late June, Democrats and Republicans in Congress introduced bills to accelerate the process and waive certain requirements such as mandatory but costly medical examinations. In December 2020, as part of the huge catchall spending bill, Congress raised the total cap for the visa programme by 4,000 to 26,500. Some Afghan communities in the US have family links with their relatives in Pakistan in refugee colonies that were formed during the Afghan struggle with the Soviet Union. These refugee colonies in Pakistan will remain a major source of exodus to the US.

If the past patterns of emigration and resettlement from the areas of earlier conflicts are followed, we will probably see a major expansion in the size of the Afghan community in the US. The number of American-born Afghans was estimated at 156,000 in 2018. Including those who migrated from their country brought their number to 200,000. We should probably look to a doubling — perhaps even a tripling of that number — once the US-Afghan episode if fully completed.

If the Afghan government falls soon after the American exit as is generally expected, some senior officials in the present Afghan government may join the exodus. President Ghani may be one of those who might relocate. He had lived in Washington for decades before he was called to serve as minister of finance in the government then headed by president Hamid Karzai. Several senior members of the Afghan community followed him back to Kabul. It is unlikely that they will continue to live and work in Afghanistan if the Taliban get back to Kabul even as partners in the new political arrangement. The Afghan diaspora in the US can look for leadership to the people who held senior positions in what was once their country.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 6th, 2021.

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