In public discourse, immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers are often grouped together or referred to interchangeably. Yet, refugees and asylum seekers are categorically different from individuals who choose to immigrate, whether for economic opportunity, reunification with family, or some other voluntary reason. Refugees are forced to flee their homes due to war, violence, or persecution—their choice is one of life or death, which places them in a legal and social category wholly separate from other migrant populations. It also means their journeys, from initially fleeing to resettlement and assimilation, are fraught with trauma, stress, and grief.
In 2021, approximately 35,000 of the 20.7 million refugees worldwide were resettled.1“UN Refugee Agency releases 2022 resettlement needs,” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, last updated, 23 June 23, 2021, https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/news/press/2021/6/60d32ba44/un-refugee-agency-releases-2022-resettlement-needs.html. This means that, year after year, millions of individuals assigned refugee status find themselves in a perpetual state of limbo, sometimes waiting decades for the opportunity to be resettled in a safe and stable environment where they may thrive and contribute their talents to their adopted homeland. In fact, each year over 300,000 children are born as refugees while their parents await resettlement.
Describing her experience waiting in a camp in Qatar, Nehal, a 25-year-old activist who fled Afghanistan recalls, “it was so hot and uncomfortable, more than 500 people were bunched up together. I remember feeling relieved that we were out of danger and away from the Taliban, but I also felt, and still feel, a great sense of loss. We left everything behind, our family, our friends, our careers.”
Historically, the United States has been one of the top resettlement countries for refugees worldwide, but its ceiling for receiving refugees has dwindled since 2016 (see Figure 1), due in part to both the political climate and restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The vast majority of refugees resettled in the United States in 2021 were from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, followed by Syria, Afghanistan, and Ukraine. As the situations in both Afghanistan and Ukraine continue to get worse, we anticipate more people will flee these countries and eventually represent a larger share of the total resettled population in the years to come, particularly given the 2022 fiscal year cap in the United States was increased to 125,000 refugees, the highest number since 1993.2“US Annual Refugee Resettlement Ceilings and Number of Refugees Admitted, 1980-Present,” Migration Policy Institute, accessed August 3, 2022, https://www.migrationpolicy,org/programs/data-hub/charts/us-refugee-resettlement.
As the United States prepares to welcome thousands more refugees into its communities, it is important to consider the unique challenges they will face and proactively advance solutions to support their whole-person needs. This paper focuses in particular on the Afghan refugee community. Given the substantial cultural differences between the United States and Afghanistan, resettlement and assimilation for this community will require culturally sensitive and empathetic support for refugees in navigating new socio-cultural contexts. These include, but are not limited to, supporting and connecting to culturally appropriate healthcare, understanding care-seeking behavior and the physical and behavioral health needs specific to this population, and tackling challenges related to education, considering both language and cultural barriers and the fact that girls and women may not have had the opportunity to formally attend school in recent years. Perhaps one of the biggest structural barriers Afghan refugees face in the United States is navigating a complex cultural landscape rife with misunderstandings and poor assumptions about Afghan refugees themselves and their connections to terrorism, resulting in discriminatory attitudes and behavior in the population at large. The following sections include firsthand accounts of Afghan refugees currently settled in the United States, focused on the challenges they face in accessing support and care.
The South Asia Center serves as the Atlantic Council’s focal point for work on the region as well as relations between these countries, neighboring regions, Europe, and the United States.
New Atlanticist Aug 12, 2022
Afghan resistance leader Ahmad Massoud: There is ‘no other option’ but to fight on against the Taliban
By Atlantic Council
“Unfortunately,” Massoud told the Atlantic Council, Taliban leaders “have not changed. They are even more radical than before.”
SouthAsiaSource Aug 12, 2022
Pakistan at 75: Learning from history to chart a better future
By Uzair Younus and Ilhan Niaz
As it celebrates seventy-five years of independence, Pakistan today “requires a change in political thinking across the political class,” says historian and author Dr. Ilhan Niaz.
Event Recap Aug 10, 2022
Event recap: Should overseas Pakistanis have a vote in Pakistan?
By Vrinda Batra
On August 4, 2022, the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center along with the Muslim American Leadership Alliance hosted an in-person conversation on the history, politicization, and future of overseas voting in Pakistan.