Dr Khalid Koser is a Lowy Institute Non-Resident Fellow and Deputy Director of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.
There is almost universal consensus among the analysts, humanitarians, and policy-makers with whom I've spoken in recent weeks that security in Afghanistan is likely to deteriorate over the next two years, that there will be significant population displacement as a result, and that at least part of this displacement will impact Australia directly.
There are differences concerning the key variables that will influence peace and security in Afghanistan. Some people are focused on the withdrawal of ISAF troops at the end of 2014, for others the outcome of the April 2014 election will be more important, while others again express concern that the generally upward trajectory in economic development in Afghanistan will be reversed as investors lose confidence.
Clearly also the relationship between peace, security and displacement is not always linear. Women are particularly likely to be displaced if the Taliban assumes an important role in the new government in Afghanistan; ethnic and linguistic minorities may be differentially affected; there will be regional and urban/rural disparities.
Nevertheless, very few people are expecting a 'solutions' scenario comprising large-scale sustainable return to Afghanistan of the millions of refugees still outside the country. A few more, but still a minority, envisage a 'doomsday' scenario of massive refugee flows out of Afghanistan into Pakistan, Iran, and perhaps Central Asia. Most forecasts revolve around a modest displacement scenario: new displacement inside Afghanistan compounding the already growing number of internally displaced persons there; some new outflows across the Iranian and Pakistan borders; and a reduction in the already low number of returns back to Afghanistan.
What are the implications for Australia?
First, many people think that among the first to leave Afghanistan will be elite Afghans and those directly associated with ISAF and the international presence in Afghanistan. They will expect support, and are likely to try to join friends and family already living overseas in the Afghan diaspora, including in Australia. Second, the possibility to return to Afghanistan for rejected asylum seekers will be very slim for at least the next two to three years.
Third, more Afghans will try to come to Australia by boat. In most cases it is not expected that they will be fleeing Afghanistan directly. Rather, they will be moving onwards from Iran as sanctions squeeze the labour market there, and from Pakistan where there is no sign that the new Nawaz Sharif Government will dial down the growing hostility towards the refugees.
Already Afghans are reported to be leaving both countries in significant numbers rather than risk going back to Afghanistan, heading to Europe via Turkey and towards Australia via Indonesia. This is an important point: Afghans are not waiting to see what will happen next year; those with resources are moving already. The others will come later. And this outward trajectory is being promoted by migrant smugglers, who are reported to be stepping up their presence in refugee camps and cities in Iran and Pakistan.
What should be the policy responses? First, it is very important that Australia and the rest of the international community stay the course in Afghanistan by supporting the election, helping build peace, and continuing development assistance. Second, the regional approach to migration management should be strengthened, in particular to develop a capacity within Indonesia to identify, process, assist, and protect Afghans arriving there. Third, expectations need to be managed: it is inevitable that more boatloads of Afghans will arrive in Australia over the next year, whatever asylum policies are put in place.
If I were running for office in Australia this September, I certainly wouldn't be raising false hopes about stopping boats any time soon.
Photo by Flickr user United Nations Photo.