Afghans will need our help long after the airlift

Of all the moving images of the Afghan airlift, one stood out. Dressed in yellow, a little girl skips high into the air as she and her family make their way across the runway shortly after arriving in Belgium. It’s an image full of relief, joy, and gratitude.

The girl and her family are among the lucky ones given the chance to start a new life in safety. Leaving their homes in haste, they arrived with very little, making convoluted journeys to countries they’ve never seen before, their hearts filled with fear for those they had to leave behind.

With emotions running so high, it’s understandable that the eyes of the world have been fixed on the airlift of people fleeing, fearing for their lives under the new regime. But once the media interest inevitably cools, Afghans will continue to need our help. We must not turn our backs on them, now or in the future.

Afghans face a deepening humanitarian and economic crisis. Inside the country, 18 million people and counting rely on humanitarian aid to survive. Our response must ramp up, fast. Otherwise, hunger and lack of prospects means large numbers could be driven to flee just to feed their families.

An Afghan refugee girl I met in the Khyber Pakhtunkwa province of Pakistan in 2018. Pakistan hosts the highest number of Afghan refugees, followed by Iran.

Afghans already make up the world’s third largest displaced population. Borders must be kept open for them, their fundamental right to seek protection upheld. Afghanistan’s neighbors, Pakistan and Iran, have hosted refugees for decades. Now they are being asked to welcome still more, during a devastating pandemic. They also need our support.

There’s a growing consensus around the world that this responsibility must be shared. At the end of August, 98 nations pledged to continue to accept people fleeing Afghanistan as the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling for safe passage to those wanting to leave.

But Afghans are in desperate need of more. Resettlement to third countries remains an option for only a tiny fraction of refugees. More options are badly needed, both to save lives and to support countries already hosting large numbers of refugees. We can and must do more for those seeking safety.

So, once the media has moved on, let’s not forget the images of the past weeks. From the hundreds crammed inside a military plane, to the infants passed over the heads of the crowd to soldiers, let’s think of these people, every one of them with a fundamental right to seek safety, to seek international asylum.

We’ll need to have long memories. Experience tells us the needs of these people won’t be met with emergency responses alone. Once they are safe, long-term solutions must be found to ensure refugees not only survive, but thrive. Over a decade with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, I saw how, given the opportunity, newcomers can prove an asset to host communities.

The world has seen an outpouring of sympathy and solidarity for Afghans in recent weeks. But the crisis is set to worsen even as the shock factor of the Taliban’s takeover begins to fade. Let’s keep our doors and hearts open and show the Afghan people that we are with them. They are likely to need our help for many years to come.

Chief Communicator #UnitedNations promoting a peaceful, sustainable, just & humane world. Author: A Hope More Powerful than the Sea. Podcast: Awake at Night.