U.S. Foreign Policy, Afghanistan, and the Historical Significance of Accepting Refugees

by Rana Irby



Recent years have seen war, violence, conflict, and persecution being major contributors to people leaving their homes as refugees. In many instances, those effects have been a result of U.S. foreign policy. National and international policy regarding accepting refugees has a history of being a response to the aftermath of war and devastating effects of regime change. The United States’ acceptance of refugees, especially those from Afghanistan amidst its current crisis, thus has a significance rooted in historical precedence.


According to the World Atlas, violence, persecution, and human rights violations are among the main factors leading people to become refugees. In terms of international policy, the obligation for countries to accept these people is based on the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, also known as the 1951 Refugee Convention. Created in light of the refugee crisis that followed World War II, the Convention established a definition of who a refugee is and what their rights are. As Holly Yan notes of a statement by the U.N’s refugee agency, this means “the international community steps in to ensure they [refugees] are safe and protected”. In 1967, the Convention was amended to include refugees worldwide. This is known as the 1967 Protocol. Time has seen 142 countries ratifying both the original treaty and the Protocol. According to the provisions of the Protocol, signatory nations are to, as the Kaidor Center notes, “[treat] refugees in accordance with internationally recognized legal and humanitarian standards,” including not sending them “…to a place where they are at risk of persecution, or to a country which might send them to such a place”. In addition, they are to “provide refugees with a legal status, including rights such as access to employment, education and social security; and not punishing refugees for entering ‘illegally’”. While the United States did not adopt the 1951 Convention, it signed on to the Protocol. This has significant implications, especially in light of current events.


Afghanistan accounts for one of the largest populations of refugees, thanks in no small part to decades of foreign intervention. The regime change following the 2001 U.S invasion of the country and overthrow of the Taliban eventually became unstable. The Taliban regained ground and Afghanistan saw some of the highest records of civilian deaths in addition to being classified as the least peaceful country in the world. With the U.S. pulling out of the country, there has been a growing call for the U.S. to let in Afghan refugees. Arguments for this have included the fact that the U.S. evacuated refugees from Vietnam after the 1975 fall of Saigon, another situation precipitated by U.S. intervention. There is historical precedence, then, for the U.S. to allow in as many refugees as possible, including those from Afghanistan. This is especially so given that many of the most vulnerable in Afghanistan are those who have assisted Western governments and entities, including the United States.


International policy for accepting refugees goes back decades, born as a result of the devastation of war. Those same decades have seen the U.S. grow as a global power and its foreign policy devastate nations not only in the form of war, but also regime changes that have resulted in conflict and violence. At the same time, it is an adoptee of the 1967 Protocol, which binds ratifying nations to accept refugees and treat them as nationals. In light of the current situation in Afghanistan, the U.S. has historical precedence to look to in terms of putting the policy it ratified into practice.


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