The Volokh Conspiracy

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The Case for Accepting Afghan Refugees

Both moral and practical considerations support admitting refugees fleeing the brutal tyranny of the Taliban.


Afghan refugees fleeing Kabul, on a US Air Force plane.


There is deep division over many aspects of the debacle currently unfolding in Afghanistan. It may be a long time before we come to any kind of consensus on the rights and wrongs of the US-led military action in that country. But one issue on which there is relatively broad agreement is the moral imperative of allowing entry to Afghan refugees fleeing the reinstalled Taliban regime, particularly those who aided US forces, or worked to promote human rights. Polls show widespread support for this idea, and even many Republican governors (representatives of a party hostile to many other types of migrants and refugees) have come out in favor of it.

This broad support is one of the very few positive aspects of the current awful situation. Both moral and practical considerations weigh heavily in favor of accepting as many Afghan refugees as are able to escape the Taliban. Some of these considerations apply to all refugees fleeing severe oppression. Others are specific to the current situation in Afghanistan.

I have written about the general considerations in some detail elsewhere, so will only briefly summarize them here. Most importantly, it is unjust to forcibly consign people to lives of poverty and oppression merely because they happen to be born to the wrong parents in the wrong place. A policy that does that is similar to medieval feudalism and domestic racial segregation, which also used the power of government to restrict where people are allowed to live, based on arbitrary circumstances of birth.

These wrongs are especially grave when the nation people are confined to is ruled by a deeply oppressive regime, such as China, Cuba, or Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. And, obviously, the injustice is even greater for groups that face targeted persecution and repression, which under the Taliban includes women, religious minorities, human rights advocates, and others. Even if you believe there is no obligation to accept refugees fleeing run-of-the-mill authoritarians, those escaping the Taliban are a different case.

Some argue that the oppression experienced by refugees is not the fault of the US and other destination countries. But even where that is true, the US government is still morally responsible if it uses force to prevent them from obtaining refuge here. If I see people fleeing a fire, the existence of that fire may not be my fault. But I am, nonetheless to blame if I prevent them from escaping the flames, at the point of a gun. The same goes for governments that forcibly bar refugees fleeing oppression.

Keeping out refugees and other would-be migrants often harms current American citizens, too. I detailed some of the ways here. Perhaps the closest historical analogue to the current situation is the fall of Saigon, in 1975, after which the US accepted 130,000 Vietnamese refugees, in the immediate aftermath, and many more in succeeding years. Vietnamese immigrants have become valuable contributors to America's economy and society, despite being from a poor society with many cultural differences relative to the US. There is every reason to expect that Afghan migrants can follow in their footsteps.

In addition to these general considerations, there are also some specific to the Afghan case. To begin with, in this instance the US government does deserve a share of the blame for the horrible situation Afghans find themselves in.

The exact scope of US responsibility for the present debacle is a matter of  debate. But, at the very least, Donald Trump bears a hefty share of blame for signing a terrible agreement with the Taliban last year, including releasing 5000 Taliban prisoners, many of whom predictably rejoined the fight. Joe Biden deserves great blame, as well, including for doubling down on Trump's awful policy despite the availability of less-bad alternatives, and for the terrible planning and management of the withdrawal. While the primary responsibility for Taliban oppression rests with the Taliban themselves, the US government contributed to the sorry state of affairs that led to the restoration of Taliban rule, and thereby has a greater-than-usual obligation to give refuge to its victims.

There are also more pragmatic reasons for aiding Afghan refugees. Many of those now fleeing helped US forces or worked with Americans and other Westerners to promote human rights in Afghanistan, particularly equality for women. If we do not give refuge to to our allies and supporters, we further damage our already diminished reputation for being reliable and trustworthy allies. The Afghan war is unlikely to be the last time we will need local help to combat terrorists and other adversaries. Such assistance is unlikely to be forthcoming if those who might provide it fear that the US will repay them by leaving them in the lurch.

The Afghan debacle has already led allies to doubt America's reliability. Saving Afghans who worked with the US will not fully solve that problem. But it would at least be a step in the right direction.

As I have previously pointed out with respect to cases like China and Cuba, welcoming refugees from oppressive hostile regimes also improves America's moral standing, and strengthens our position in the international war of ideas between liberal and illiberal ideologies. For fairly obvious reasons, these points apply to the Afghan situation, as well.

Some fear that accepting large numbers of Afghan refugees would risk a wave of crime or terrorism. Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute explains why such fears are overblown. Indeed, as he documents, Afghan migrants actually have lower rates of crime and terrorism than native-born Americans. And, obviously, those most eager to flee Taliban rule are unlikely to share its ideology.

Another possible justification for keeping out Afghan refugees is the claim that they have a moral duty to "fix their own country" and stay and fight in Afghanistan. I summarized the general flaws of such arguments here. Among other things, if we take them seriously, they would imply that the ancestors of the vast majority of Americans were wrong to come here from their countries of origin. They should instead have worked to fix the oppressive regimes they fled, such as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany, and czarist Russia.

The "fix their own country" argument is particularly wrong when it comes to the Afghan case. After all, many of those now fleeing are in danger precisely because they did try to fix their own country, by working with US and allied forces, promoting equality for women, and strengthening protection for human rights. Some 66,000 Afghans died fighting the Taliban (far more than the number of American and other NATO casualties). Critics comfortably ensconced in the United States would do well to consider whether they themselves would show greater courage and commitment under comparable circumstances.

In sum, the US has every reason to accept Afghan refugees. We should bring out as many as possible as US forces depart. And we should also take those able to flee on their own in the future. The withdrawal of US forces does not vitiate any of the moral or pragmatic considerations at stake.

It will not be easy to come to grips with the disastrous outcome in Afghanistan, or to figure out all the lessons that might be drawn from it. But the US can start by doing right by those fleeing oppression.