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Afghanistan turmoil

Afghan refugees in India worry about safety of loved ones

Taliban takeover of war-torn Afghanistan dashes hopes of ever returning

Afghan nationals gather to urge the international community to help Afghan refugees, in New Delhi on Aug. 18.   © Reuters

NEW DELHI -- Armin Karimi, an Afghan refugee in India's capital, is anguished about the Taliban takeover and deteriorating security situation in his war-torn homeland.

"I came here five years ago with my parents and a brother to rebuild [our lives and return] once things improved back home," said the 19-year-old, who runs a bakery in a city market.

Two of Karimi's older siblings chose to remain in Kabul and continue with their jobs. "My doctor sister and engineer brother now want to join us in India, but airport operations in Kabul have been disrupted, and there is hardly any flight for them," Karimi said. "Currently, they are safe, but we do not know how the Taliban behaves in the days to come."

India-based Afghan refugees are shocked with the stunning speed with which the Taliban took control of almost the entire country after American troops began their withdrawal. As the Taliban seized Kabul on Aug. 15, the U.S.-supported Afghan government collapsed and President Ashraf Ghani fled the country.

Karimi learned from his relatives in Afghanistan that boys have begun wearing traditional tunics and trousers instead of T-shirts and jeans, and girls now prefer not to be seen without a burqa, as Afghans attempt to avoid the wrath of the Taliban. During the previous Taliban regime, from 1996 to 2001, the strict enforcement of Islamic law barred Western clothes, films and music, and women from working and studying.

"I don't think we can ever go back now," Karimi said.

Khalil al-Rahman Haqqani, a leader of the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network and a U.S.-designated terrorist with a $5 million bounty on his head, delivers a sermon to a large crowd at the Pul-I-Khishti Mosque in Kabul on Aug. 20.   © Getty Images

Zarfam Habeeb, a 25-year-old Afghan in New Delhi came to India in 2015 along with her parents and four siblings.

"My parents worked in the government sector and faced repeated threats from the militants," Habeeb said.

As a result, The family left behind a house and other assets in the southern province of Ghazni. Habeeb herself was studying to become a doctor but left her course midway through to come to "much safer" India.

"It pains me to see what is happening in Afghanistan currently," she said. "But what can I do? I'm helpless."

Matin Qaderi, who sells tea leaves and spices in his small store in the Indian capital, is upset about the U.S. "abandoning" Afghanistan. The 16-year-old six years ago came to India from the northeastern province of Takhar with his parents and siblings. He now fears the "Pakistan-backed Taliban will make the life even more miserable for innocent Afghans," he said.

Matin Qaderi, a 16-year-old Afghan refugee in New Delhi, said he was "living in constant fear that militants could attack us at any time," and his three sisters' safety was "always the family's primary concern" before he fled to India. (Photo by Kiran Sharma)

"The situation is extremely grave in Afghanistan, and we are deeply concerned about the safety of our relatives there," Qaderi added.

According to the United Nations, Afghan refugees make up the world's third-largest displaced population, after those who have fled Syria and Venezuela. As of March 2021, a total of 41,315 refugees and asylum-seekers were registered with the UNHCR India, with Afghans making up the second-largest subgroup, at 37%, behind those from Myanmar, at 54%.

More Afghans are looking to flee their country. Earlier this week, as the Taliban cemented its takeover, thousands rushed to the Kabul airport in desperate bids to escape. There is video footage showing some people clinging to a moving aircraft. Amid the airport chaos, seven people have reportedly died.

India has made it clear that its current focus is on ensuring the security and safe return of Indian nationals still in Afghanistan.

At the same time, it has introduced a new category of emergency electronic visas for Afghan nationals in view of the prevailing situation. "We have already received requests from Afghan Sikh and Hindu [minority] community leaders, and are in touch with them," the foreign ministry said on Tuesday.

Afghan nationals attend a gathering to urge the international community to help Afghan refugees, in New Delhi on Aug. 18.   © Reuters

Some Afghan refugees based in India, however, feel Europe offers better education and employment opportunities. "We feel secure in India but it's not easy with our refugee status" to get a job in the formal sector or go for higher education, said Habeeb, the 25-year-old who came to India six years ago.

Analysts say that today women and other Afghans have more access to the media, especially social media, and are conveying their plight to the world. In addition, European nations are likely to take a sympathetic approach to them. This was not the case in the late 1990s and early 2000s when many Afghans sought refuge in neighboring countries.

"I think [Afghans] will now seek greener pastures in Europe rather than coming to India," said Pankaj Jha, a professor of defense and strategic studies at the O.P. Jindal Global University. "Europe is better in terms of income and lifestyle, and is also expected to accommodate these refugees up to an extent."

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